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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!