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Time in a Bottle

It’s been said that timing is everything. But what about timing – specifically time in bottle – when it comes to wine? Judging by how often I’m asked about aging wine, it seems like a topic that creates a lot of confusion. As special bottles of good cheer are left by the chimney with care this month, I thought that now would be a great time to tackle this issue.

The cellars of today are usually just the trunks of our cars – most of us drink our wines within less than a day of purchase. There isn’t really anything wrong with this, because most wines sold these days are made to be enjoyed young. But that being said, like in life, sometimes there’s no substitute for patience and maturity.

A lot can change as a wine ages in a bottle. The color of a red wine will go from ruby red to brick, while a white wine typically moves from the lemon yellow range to a deeper gold. Aromas also change. In “winespeak,” we say that the youthful fruity aromas of a wine give way to complex and developed notes. So, for instance, a wine made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape might smell like blackcurrants and vanilla while young, and then cedar, leather and tobacco when older.

The tough part of all of this is that not all wines are age-worthy. In general, one or two years sitting in a cool spot in your home won’t usually hurt a wine, but it won’t necessarily make it better, either. Not all wines have the concentration of fruit and the necessary structure to withstand long-term aging – if you put a bottle of the cheap stuff in a cellar for 20 years, all you’ll get is vinegar.  While price isn’t the sole factor in deciding whether you should age a wine, it’s smart to drink very inexpensive wines right away.

But when you are dealing with well-made, quality wines, time can be your best friend. Red wines that are intense, tannic and concentrated when young (think of wines made from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo or Syrah to name just a few) can mellow and soften if given some time in the bottle. And age can add more character to white wines – sometimes bringing a nutty or earthy note that balances the fruit in an absolutely delicious way. For the right bottle, a bit of age can take it from good to incredible.

So, if you’re not sure where to start, how can you discover what older wines taste like? Here are my suggestions:

•The holiday season is a good time to look for special releases of older vintages. Retailers and wineries know that these can make for extra-special presents.

•Buy older wines through auctions – it can be less expensive than you might think. Just be sure to only buy from a reputable auction house that can give you a lot of information about where they got the wine.

•Look for wines that are only released after they’ve been aged at the winery for many years, like those from Spain’s Rioja region. You’ll know that what’s available in stores is already several years old.

•If you have somewhere dark, cool and away from a heat source at home, buy several bottles of the same wine. Mark the date of purchase on each bottle, and then mark each with a “to be opened” date in one year increments. You can taste the first bottle as soon as you buy the wine and another each year to discover how it changes.

All of these different options can help you to develop a better appreciation for both old and young wines. To paraphrase the slogan used by Orson Welles as spokesman for Paul Masson winery in the 1970s, understanding what age can do for a wine will help you to “drink no wine before its time.”