As the saying goes: the best time to drink a wine is when the bottle is open! All kidding aside, at least 99% of wines are ready to drink by the time they are available for sale. However some wines do benefit from cellaring and will be more enjoyable to drink when they are mature in five, eight, 10 years or more. Aging allows flavours to mellow and the wine becomes more harmonious, balanced and complex.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint exactly when a wine will be at its peak. Here are a few factors to keep in mind when you are trying to decide whether to drink now or save for later.
Red grapes traditionally associated with the Bordeaux region such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Merlot are often made with concentration of flavour, more structure and higher levels of tannins. When they are young, these wines can be described as tight, closed, astringent or harsh.
Over time as tannins combine and soften, the wines will develop a pleasant silken texture. We fondly remember the Terroir Cabernet Franc from the 1998 vintage which was so tannic and assertive when it was bottled that it was nicknamed the Cellar Monster (but drinking well 15 years later).
Acidity keeps a wine tasting fresh but becomes gentler over time. White wines with high acidity have greater potential to age gracefully because the acidity helps protect against oxidation.
Of all the white varieties, Riesling continues to evolve and mature over time in the bottle with its fresh, fruity flavours replaced with more minerality and classic bottle-aged characteristics. Strewn’s soon to-be-sold out Riesling from 2014 is a gorgeous example of this.
As the fruit drops away in a lower-acid Chardonnay, it will show more toasty oak and earthy notes which some love and others don’t.
Icewines made from Vidal or Riesling grapes are noted for their sweetness (residual sugar) which when balanced by acidity allows them to evolve from fresh fruit flavours to dried fruits, caramel and butterscotch.
Mother Nature definitely has a say in whether a wine will be suitable for cellaring. Niagara is considered a cool climate wine region and not every year has enough hot, dry, sunny days to produce grapes with concentrated flavours and higher levels of tannins. On average, Strewn makes its top-tier Terroir reds every second year. The last vintage was 2016 and these wines are benefiting from still more mellowing time before being released. It pays to know weather patterns by year!
4. Viticultural Practices and Wine-Making Style
What happens in the vineyard can play a significant role in producing grapes with bigger flavour and tannins. These include shoot thinning, leaf removal and canopy management to open grapes to the sun, and crop thinning to ensure maximum flavour and ripeness.
Wine-making style is also something that impacts whether a wine is a suitable candidate for cellaring. With the demand for ready-to-drink wines, particularly reds, winemakers can craft wines that are more fruit-forward, softer and lower in tannins. They may be delicious to drink while young but won’t improve with cellaring.
5. Proper Storage
Wines keep best in consistent temperature rather than ones that fluctuate. Ideally, temperatures should be around 13°C / 55°F. The warmer the temperature and the more temperature variations your wine undergoes, the sooner it will mature.
6. Personal Preference
Tastes differ and yours is the one that counts! Do you prefer wines with a fresh, fruity quality or those with heavy tannins? Vibrant and fruity or soft and mellow? Rich and velvety? Know the wine styles you enjoy and don’t be swayed by someone else’s. Of course, you can always put aside a bottle that will benefit from aging to celebrate a special occasion in the future.
How to Track Wine Aging in the Cellar
- Taste! Open a bottle periodically (perhaps once a year); part of the pleasure is seeing how it is developing
- Keep a wine journal or diary and record the date you taste a bottle along with your comments. Once you don’t notice changes from one bottle to the next, it probably won’t benefit from additional cellaring.
- Use cellar labels to help you remember a wine that may be near its prime (mark the date by which the bottle is to be opened).
Holidays and entertaining go hand-in-hand and wine can play a starring role in a get-together. Here are some wine tips to consider when you are hosting a small or large gathering.
Pick Your Own “House Wine”
Unless you know guests are wine connoisseurs, a party is usually not the best time to pull out special bottles you have been saving. Instead look for wines that will be crowd-pleasers and choose a white and a red to offer as your house wine which will appeal to a wide range of tastes. These tend to be easy drinking/food friendly/lower in tannin, with 12% or less alcohol content. They are often less expensive and may have a little sweetness.
To determine the mix of red and white wine, go with an even split if you are not sure which your guests prefer. This is a change from the traditional two-thirds white and reflects changing wine tastes.
White wines vary from full-bodied buttery, toasty Chardonnays to crisp, refreshing whites with lots of fruit such as Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc. Both these styles can pair well with holiday meals. Red wines can be medium or full-bodied but consider choosing reds with softer tannins (big tannin reds cry out for high protein meats such as lamb and steak rather than appetizers or snacks).
The “Wine Bar”
Be a responsible host and pour wine instead of setting out bottles and allowing guests to serve themselves. Plan to serve two drinks per person in the first hour of your event then one drink during each following hour.
Start by pouring less wine than the usual 5-ounces. Stay away from using oversized wine glasses or you may discover the wine doesn’t go nearly as far as you expected. For a larger group, you may want to rent glasses (no washing required afterwards!) rather than risk breakage of your own delicate or costly stemware.
If you are offering a selection of wines (e.g. more than one white and red or a sparkling or dessert wine), serve 2 or 3-ounce pours so guests can taste and compare wines throughout your get together.
To help guests pace themselves offer a selection of non-alcoholic beverages, such as sparkling or still water, juice, soft drinks, non-alcoholic punch or cider. And don’t automatically offer to refill an empty glass with wine.
Food slows down the speed at which the body absorbs alcohol. Offer veggies, cheeses and light dips during the gathering. Avoid salty, sweet or greasy foods, which tend to make people thirstier. Check out this easy recipe for Emerald Edamame Spread >> courtesy of the Wine Country Cooking School.
How Much Wine to Allow
Wine Math: a 750 mL bottle = 5 (5-ounce) glasses or 6 (4-ounce) glasses. We normally allow one-third of a bottle per person. A 750 mL bottle of sparkling wine (poured into flutes) = 8 servings.
Stand up parties – allow one 4-ounce glass of wine per guest per hour and expect one or two refills. Fill wine glasses no more half full to minimize the risk of wine being spilled while guests are talking and circulating. And have some Wine Away or other red wine stain remover on hand just in case you need it.
Sit down dinners – allow two 4-ounce glasses of wine per hour as people tend to drink more at dinner. Serve water with the meal and keep water glasses full.
Most people drink less at afternoon gatherings than they do in the evening (think about serving lighter-style and sparkling wines).
The right "coolness" for serving
Here is a general guidelineto help you serve wine at the best temperatures.
Whites and rosés: refrigerate for a few hours before serving
Reds: refrigerate for 15 minutes before serving
Sparkling: refrigerate then keep on ice between pours
Remember the cooler the wine, the more refreshing it will taste but the aromas will be subdued.
Last But Not Least – Be a Responsible Guest
In Canada the maximum blood alcohol content (BAC) for fully licensed drivers is 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood (0.05). More than that and you may have your license suspended. Driving with a BAC over 0.08 is a criminal offence.
The enzyme in the liver that eliminates alcohol works at different rates depending on genetic background, gender, weight, and food intake before drinking. As a rule of thumb to stay within the 0.05 blood alcohol concentration limit, consume no more than two 5-ounce glasses of wine if you're a man or one glass if you're a woman.