You have bought, or been lucky enough to have been given, a really nice bottle of wine. Fantastic! Now what?
There’s something satisfying about having a growing collection of wines, especially wines that aren’t bought because they’re on sale! It’s hard to know (and track!) the limits of each wine’s ability to age, though - and it’s also hard sometimes to figure out which wines are worthwhile throwing in the cellar in the first place.
So, which wines are usually worth cellaring? What should your cellar look like, and why should we cellar wines at all?
Why cellaring can be a good idea
When you think of movie scenes with people stylishly swirling and sipping expensive wine, it probably invokes images of dusty wine which has been kept in a cool cellar for a decade. What is it about keeping wine (among other types of alcohol) that makes it apparently ‘improve’?
It’s worth clearing up some myths. Although you probably haven’t accidentally drunk wine that you were supposed to cellar, the bad news is that wine worthy of ageing isn’t actually very common at all. The vast majority of all wine available for purchase is intended to be drunk quite young, with only a very small fraction designed to improve with age. Most experts typically claim that only 5–10% of wine improves after one year, and only 1% improves after 5–10 years.
The reason for this is that wineries take the guesswork out of ageing by factoring it into the wine’s production. The end result most wineries produce is deliberate: a ready-to-drink product that doesn’t require any calculations of additional time resting in the cellar. Scarily, this actually means that most wine will actually start to deteriorate if aged - so it’s worth being very careful!
Aging changes wine, but doesn’t definitively improve it or worsen it. Winemaking involves a series of complex chemical reactions, and these don’t stop once the wine is bottled. The most obvious changes to a wine that’s been aged, and the reason you’d cellar a good bottle, include the fact that tannins ‘soften’ - so a big, bold, red will end up being much smoother, with some people describing it going from ‘harsh’ to ‘silky’. Additionally, it dampens the fruitiness of a wine’s dominant flavours, instead opening multiple layers of flavour and subtlety.
So how do I know if a wine is worth cellaring?
Before cellaring your wines, be sure that you actually like older wine! If you prefer big, bright and fruity flavours, you might actually prefer to enjoy them in their youth rather than tucking them away for 2-5 years.
Some wines will improve immensely with time. For example, a pricey Red Bordeaux deserves time to mature, as its rich tannins will soften to reveal different and complex flavours. Some wines could even be kept for decade or more - those include Northern Italian Barolo and Vintage Port. White wines too can enjoy time in rest, especially Riesling and Chenin Blanc.
It’s the grapeskin contact that gives the wine its tannins, and tannic wines tend to fare best when developing over time in a cellar. Wines with big tannins include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah or Shiraz. In general, wines with a low pH (such as Pinot Noir and Sangiovese) can also age quite well.
What about whites and sparkling wines? Can you cellar those?
You can age whites, and those which have gone through barrel fermentation and oak ageing fare best in a cellar for reasons that are similar to the tannins in red wine, explained above. This typically includes varietals such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Semillon (especially Semillon from the Hunter Valley in Australia). For similar reasons, minimal skin contact means rosé wines have limited ageing potential - a great excuse to break them out at any time, if you ask us!
Although it’s traditionally uncommon to cellar sparkling, there has been a recent resurgence in vintage Champagne, in particular. You will see however, most sparkling wines are labelled NV - or non-vintage. Interestingly however, in 2009, a 184-year-old bottle of Perrier-Jouët was opened and tasted, still drinkable, with experts remarking on the notes of ‘truffles and caramel’. We can’t help but wonder how much that bottle would’ve be worth!
What should my cellar look like?
Although not all wines should be cellared, it can be a fascinating experiment to see how a wine you love changes over time. If you do choose to cellar a wine, be sure to store it on its side in a cool place, safe from any frequent movement or vibrations, and somewhere well away from direct sunlight. If you don’t have the budget to excavate your own cellar, that’s fine - a spot under the stairs or at the bottom of a wardrobe in a spare bedroom will do just fine in a pinch! It’s also fine to keep your wines in the boxes they came in, unless of course you love the look of a dedicated wine rack - or it becomes practical to organise your wines as you start to accumulate more.
Happy collecting - and cheers!
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