Good wine gone bad

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Lake & Sumter Style Magazine.

How long can you store a bottle of wine? The answer: it depends on the wine. As Kenny Rogers once sang, “You have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em… the secret is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.”

Many wines start as winners and over time end up as losers. A common misconception about wine is that the taste improves with age. Wines do, in fact, change with age, but not always for better. More than 90 percent of the world’s wines should be consumed within one year of their release dates, and less than one percent should be aged for more than five years, according to wine expert Kevin Zraly, who founded the Windows on the World Wine School in New York.

Several factors affect how long a wine can be held. The most critical is the amount of tannin in a wine. Red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux, have a lot of tannin and last much longer than white wines and even longer than lighter reds like Pinot Noirs.

Other factors affecting a wine’s longevity are the vintage and the region. If a growing year had good weather, chances are the vintage will have a better balance of fruits, acids, and tannin, all of which help the aging process. Some regions have better soils, slopes, drainage, and climate than others do, which add to better aging potential.

The winemaking process also can play a role in how long a wine will last. Winemakers have been known to make magic with a mediocre vintage. Sometimes keeping wine in contact with grape skins longer (maceration) or aging it longer in oak during fermentation will contribute to a better wine.

I recently found a 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Merlot in the back of my wine cooler. Since I do not drink a lot of Merlot, I wasn’t sure how I acquired this particular bottle or if it was still good. Produced in Washington State’s rugged Wahluke Slope area, wines from the Indian Wells vineyard are known for their rich tannin and full-bodied flavors. Although the bottle contained quite a bit of sediment, I took a gamble and served it with a thick steak. The rich plum flavors and velvety texture had withstood the test of time although the Chateau Ste. Michelle’s winemaker recommended the 2006 vintage be consumed within five years for best flavor.

A wine’s optimum flavor is easier to taste when comparing vintages in a vertical tasting. To test this theory for white wines, some friends and I held a tasting with 2009, 2010, and 2011 vintages of Toasted Head Chardonnay. The side-by-side tasting yielded totally different flavors and variations. For instance, the 2009 nose was off-putting and the taste seemed flat. Although the wine was not “corked,” it had already lost most of its oaky characteristics. Of the three, it had turned a deep golden color — not a desirable trait for a Chardonnay.

The 2010 vintage was still buttery and even smoother than the 2011 release. However, it had lost its acidity, an important component for white wines. The current 2011 release of Toasted Head Chardonnay is mostly likely at its peak flavor.

It is common to see several vintages of the same wine on a store shelf. A rule of thumb for buying most Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs is to go with the latest vintage as evidenced by the Toasted Head vertical tasting. The current release probably tastes the way the winemaker intended. When shopping for red wines, check a vintage chart to see how that year’s weather affected the growing season. Most vintage charts also recommend how long to hold a wine.

The final component for making sure a wine stays drinkable is storage — both at the store and in your home. If wines are displayed in a sunny display window, forget them. Nothing kills a wine faster than heat. If you don’t want to invest in a small wine refrigerator, make sure to cellar wines in a cool, dark area of your home. I’ve seen wine stored on top of kitchen cabinets near the ceiling in decorative wine racks. Heat rises and chances are those wines will not be drinkable only a few weeks after purchasing.

Although wine collectors will pay millions for a rare vintage, they are often looking at those bottles as works of art, not as wines to pair with a Saturday night steak. For them, it is a real gamble the wines will be drinkable. For most of us, the advice of winemakers who tell you to “pull it out and pop the cork” is a safe bet.

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