Monday, August 20, 2018

How long should we cellar our wines?

A few weeks ago I raised the issue of how long we should keep our newly purchased wines, in order to drink them while at their best. Most of us have no idea about how to decide this, so we might seek advice from people who possibly know more than we do. However, it is usually rather hard to do this, unless the actual winemaker has suggested something.

From Wine Folly

This because most wine writers seem to either: make rather generic statements (eg. based on the origin of the wine), or be very vague (eg. short-, medium-, long-term cellaring), or ignore the topic entirely. I don't blame them. There are two parts to the problem of making such a decision: (i) where are the wines being stored? and (ii) why are you storing them? Recently, Tom Maresca recently wrote a blog post addressing both issues with respect to his own cellar (Tales from the crypt: a cellar story):
Most collectors would scream with horror at such an uncontrolled repository for their wines, but I’m not a collector and never have been ... The wines I’ve stored over the years have been a hodge-podge ... So if less-than-perfect storage conditions meant speeding up their maturation — in effect adding a few years to their calendrical age — that was and is no problem for me. In fact, it’s an advantage, since I have no plans to bequeath a cellar to my heirs and assigns, and I’d like to taste these wines while I still have functioning taste buds.
Well, like Tom, I am cellaring my wines for my own drinking, and my storage conditions are less than perfect. How do I decide when to open each bottle?

Some data

I decided that I would find out what sort of advice I get given. Since few commentators provide the required quantitative information (ie. some actual drinking dates), I ended up falling back on my trusty Australian wine experts (as I have done in previous blog posts).

There are three I found who have, at least in the past, provided a range of actual years that they consider to be the "peak drinking window" for the wines they have reviewed: Jeremy Oliver, James Halliday, and the Wine Front. The first two commentators are individual people, while the third one is a group of three people (Mike Bennie, Campbell Mattinson, Gary Walsh), any one of whom may have provided the commentary.

I have been recording their data whenever I consulted their writings about an Australian wine. So, there is nothing planned about the following data — it is simply whatever wines I have researched over the past couple of years, and for which all three critics have provided a minimum and maximum recommended drinking year. All of the wines are considered to be worth cellaring (otherwise I wouldn't need the data!), and therefore most of them are red (and, coincidentally, none are sparkling).

I got to a total of 111 wines, before I decided to write this post. I checked 194 wines, but only these 111 had complete data from all three sources. The following two graphs summarize the data for these 111 wines. Each of them is a frequency histogram, in which the vertical axis counts the number of wines fitting into each of the categories represented horizontally. The three commentators are shown in different colors.

The first graph shows the actual cellaring ranges suggested by each critic — that is, the number of years between their earliest suggested drinking date and the final suggested date (ie. the length of the drinking window). Note that, since it is the same 111 wines shown for each critic, the three superimposed graphs would be identical if the critics perfectly agreed with each other. Clearly, not only are they not identical, they differ quite a lot.

Frequency histogram of the cellaring ranges

So, there is not much agreement between the three sets of suggestions:
  • Jeremy Oliver's suggestions show two peaks of time (technically, the data are bimodal), with peaks at 4-5 years and at 9 years, presumably representing his idea about short- and long-term cellaring;
  • James Halliday's suggestions are also rather bimodal, but with peaks at 6 years and 9 years — plus, there are a lot of much longer times, as well;
  • the Wine Front suggestions are only slightly bimodal, with most of the suggestions being in the range 6-9 years.
So, it seems that, while the suggestions differ, it is the Wine Front that differs the most — Oliver and Halliday pretty much ignore 7-8 years as a storage time. Furthermore, for one-fifth of the wines there is actually no overlap in the suggested drinking window between: (i) the Wine Front and Jeremy Oliver, or (ii) between Oliver and Halliday. A fat lot of help this is to me, as a person seeking advice!

Now let's look at the data in a slightly different way. The second graph shows each critic's suggested drinking window as a proportion of the total suggested window — that total length is the number of years between the earliest suggested date from any of the critics and the last date suggested by any of them.

Frequency histogram of the cellaring range proportions

James Halliday is often the one who determines the maximum value of the window (represented by the big orange peak at the right), making him the most optimistic about how long the wines will last. Jeremy Oliver's suggestions are often only 40-50% of the length of the total window, while those from the Wine Front are often more than that. So, Oliver's suggested lengths average about 88% of those of both Halliday and 82% of the Wine Front's, while Halliday's average is about 27% longer than those of the Wine Front.

This means that Oliver is the most cautious in making his prognostications — he suggests shorter drinking windows. Perhaps he is less optimistic about the conditions under which wine will be stored by most people? Interestingly, Halliday no longer makes suggestions for the upper limit of his drinking windows. Perhaps he has realized that wine-storage conditions make this particular prognostication fraught with danger?

Conclusions

There is not much agreement between the three sources of cellaring information. This matches the situation for wine-quality scores, where disagreements among commentators abound, as I have discussed before.

I can see why most wine commentators refrain from being too precise about how long to cellar any given wine. Not only are they making a forecast about each wine's future development, they have to contend with unknown but probably less-than-ideal storage conditions. This is a pity, because I still have to somehow make my decision, every time I buy a bottle of wine. I can also see why wine-interested people often buy multiple bottles of each vintage — at least one of them might be drunk when the wine is at its peak!

7 comments:

  1. From Andrea Immer Robinson, Master Sommelier’s Website

    QUESTION: How long should you age a wine?

    ANDREA ANSWERS: Maybe you remember the Paul Masson ads that proudly proclaimed, “We will sell no wine before its time.” But how long should you age a wine?

    A commonly-quoted trade statistic states that the average American consumer ages their wine 17 minutes -- the amount of time it takes to get the bottle home and the cork pulled! I don’t have proof, but I wouldn’t doubt it. And for most wines, that’s perfectly appropriate. Ninety-five percent of wines on the market are meant to be enjoyed within one two three years of bottling, while they are young and fresh.

    The other five percent or so are wines that can actually improve with aging (otherwise, what’s the point?). These major categories are the best aging candidates:

    • Red Burgundy (top estates)
    • Sauternes & Other Dessert Wines
    • California Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Red Bordeaux Chateaux
    • Vintage Port

    In excellent vintages, red Burgundy hits its stride at 5-7 years’ age. The best Sauternes peak at around 7 to 10 years, as do great California Cabernets. Top red Bordeaux just begin to show their greatness at 10 years (and in some cases 20!), and vintage Port is believed to be “ready” finally at 20 years and older. Alcohol, acidity, tannin and sugar are wine’s natural preservatives. The best agers typically have a high proportion of at least some of these components -- the more the better for a long aging period.

    Of course, the Golden Rule is: drink the wine whenever you’d like to. It’s your personal taste that counts. And no one wants to pass up the opportunity to taste a great wine -- even if it’s technically “too young”!

    Here’s a great saying about wine aging that my mentor Kevin Zraly loves to quote:

    “The English drink their wines too old, because they like to impress people by showing them all the dusty old bottles in their cellars. The French drink their wines too young because they’re afraid the Socialist government will take them away. And Americans drink their wine at just the right time -- because they don’t know any better!”

    Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?

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  2. Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (February 10, 1994, Page Unknown):

    “Young Wines Built Tough”

    URL: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1994-02-10/food/fo-21040_1_young-wine

    By Dan Berger
    Wine Critic

    When the waiter arrives at your table with that Cabernet Sauvignon you ordered and the bottle is relaxing on its side, nestled in a silver wire basket, can you be sure he didn't flip the bottle three times over his head before laying it in its cradle?

    And could you tell the difference if he had?

    Wine is believed to be a very fragile thing. Snooty collectors swear all wines have to be stored on their sides (to keep the corks moist) at precisely 54 degrees with a humidity of 77.34%, and that any light or vibration is death. They claim that any heat at all ruins the wine. They say they can tell if you cared for it properly--ideally, I suppose, by keeping it resting in its original wooden case, top still nailed shut, underneath your house, preferably covered by a mound of earth.

    Bosh, I say. Wine is a heck of a lot sturdier than that. Coddling it may make you feel better, but likely as not, most wine isn't going to spoil if you leave it on the kitchen counter for three days, or three weeks, or even mistreat it for a day or two. In fact, some torture might actually help a young wine.

    Not long ago I tried a test that shocked 16 experienced tasters. I took a bottle of a fine 1989 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and put it in the trunk of my car. I left it there for five weeks, driving all over the county during one of the hottest parts of the summer.

    Finally, I pulled the wine out of the trunk and placed it alongside another bottle of the same wine that had been resting on its side in my wine cellar, unmoved, undisturbed from its 60-degree home. A week later, I placed both wines in brown paper bags, removed the foil capsules and the corks, and replaced the branded corks with blanks, so the tasters would have no clue what was up.

    I then poured the wine for the 16 and asked only one question: Which wine do you like better? Everyone said the wines were very close in aroma, and almost identical in taste, but 12 of the 16 preferred the bottle that spent its summer vacation just north of my transaxle.

    Why? I suspect that this wine, being very young and tannic, needed to be handled roughly if it was to be appreciated so early in life. The wine clearly was made to be aged for a long time, and one way to accelerate its aging a bit and make it more approachable was to beat it up.

    Obviously, I'm not suggesting that everyone store young red wines in car trunks, but this little exercise was one bit of evidence that wine is far less fragile than some people think.

    Most young wine benefits from some aeration, so another way to make a young wine taste better is to splash it roughly into a decanter or water pitcher and give it the air that will help open up the aroma.

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  3. Excerpts from Wine Times (September/October 1989) interview
    with Robert Parker.

    WINE TIMES: . . . What are your preferences in terms of types and styles of wine?

    PARKER: I do want to taste fruit. . . .

    WINE TIMES: . . . What are your weaknesses as a taster?

    PARKER: . . . I don't think these are weaknesses, just observations: I don't like a vegetal character in wines. . . . I like delicate, elegant wines, . . . I also don't like wines that are overly tart. Now that may be a weakness. I feel far too many California wines are excessively acidified. . . . if a wine tastes like biting into a fresh lemon or lime, I think that's an objectionable character. . . .

    . . . how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure -- wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.

    If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that's an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] "dry out," it's debatable then whether that's a great vintage.

    Most people are hung up on wines that are brawny and tannic. One thing I'm certain about in the wine business is that wines are often too tannic. People perceive that all that tannin is going to melt away [with time] and this gorgeous fruit will emerge. But that rarely ever happens. The good wines in good vintages not only have the depth but also the precociousness. I used to think some of the softer ones wouldn't last more than a couple of years, but they get more and more interesting. Most California wines are not only overly acidified, but the type of tannins they have in most of their Cabernets -- whether the vines are too immature, the climate is different, whatever -- are too hard, too astringent. And you see that even in the older ones. . . .

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  4. That question is very similar to "how long is a string?" :-)

    /Per

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    Replies
    1. Very true. But I still have to decide how long my shoes laces should be, anyway. / David

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  5. Jancis Robinson MW released this book in 1989 projecting the maturation of a selection of benchmark wines.

    Cover art:

    http://www.roundtablebooks.com/assets/images/product/19525.jpg

    Europeans can find copies here:

    https://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/SearchResults?cm_sp=plpafe-_-all-_-hard&an=jancis+robinson&bi=h&ds=5&n=&sortby=17&tn=vintage+timecharts+loth

    Americans can find copies here:

    https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?cm_sp=plpafe-_-coll-_-first&an=jancis+robinson&ds=5&fe=on&n=&sortby=1&tn=vintage+timecharts+pedigree+performance

    ReplyDelete