Sunday, 2 November 2008

How soon is now?

It’s a question I’m often asked: which wines should you keep? And for those that can be laid down, how long for?

First things first: the vast majority of wines bought in the UK are drunk within days (if not hours) or purchase. Consequently most wines on sale here reflect that fact and are best drunk straightaway. Obviously wines do have a shelf life (they’re not bottles of milk), so straightaway needn’t be taken literally: what I mean is, within months. However, not all wines are created equal, so here’s a quick guide to drinking up times.

DYA – drink youngest available
At one end of the spectrum are those wines that should be drunk as young as possible: they don’t improve with age and are best enjoyed in their fresh and fruity youth. Rosés and pretty much all wines made from Sauvignon Blanc fall into this category. Another thing to bear in mind is that the southern hemisphere is six months ahead of its northern counterpart in wine-making terms, so 2008 Sauvignon Blancs and rosés from the likes of New Zealand and Chile are hitting the shelves around now: treat 2007s as needing drinking up pronto and be wary of anything from 2006.

The middle way
Most everyday wines fall into this category: they probably won’t improve with age, but you can hold onto them for a year or so without any harm being done. If you have found a terrific little wine from the south of France that didn’t cost much and fancy stashing some away to age – by all means have a go. But don’t be too surprised if, after three or four years, it hasn’t got better – it probably wasn’t designed to.

Wines for laying down
As a very general rule of thumb, any wine costing less than £10 a bottle is not going to be laying down material. Wines that are going to repay ageing are not usually readily available on the High Street, so don’t worry that you might buy one by mistake! If I were buying really fine wines with a view to keeping them for a number of years, then I would rather deal with a specialist merchant – and probably pay for proper cellar storage too.

The ingredients needed to allow a wine to age are plenty of fruit, acid and tannin (for reds) or fruit and acid (for whites). Tannin is the “stewed tea” feeling that you get from red wines and which can make young wines designed to age almost undrinkable, until those tannins have had time to soften and mellow.

Prime candidates for ageing include:
Claret (red Bordeaux): high acid levels, tannins and dense fruit make the most expensive claret unlovable in its youth. The best wines in a good year can need ten years or more to mature and show what they can do – and can then last for another decade or more. A word of warning – this applies only to the very top level of Bordeaux. The vast majority of what you see for sale is more humble stuff designed for early drinking rather than cellaring; as usual, let price be your guide: if it’s under ten quid, it’s probably not for keeping.
Northern Italian reds, especially Barolo and Barbaresco. If you want to know what tannin really tastes like then pick up a bottle of Barolo – this wine needs a decade before you know what all the fuss is about.
Vintage port. These wines can happily age for decades; probably the ultimate “lay some wine down for your children” wine.
Dessert wines. The magic combination of sugar and acid allows sweet wines to live amazingly long lives. Sauternes and intensely sweet wines from the Loire and Germany are classic examples.

Do you have to lay these wines down?
In the end, everyone’s taste in wine is personal, so there are no hard and fast rules. The English think it sacrilege to drink a vintage port until it’s getting on for voting age; Americans love to get their teeth into one that’s barely started primary school. The French, too, seem to enjoy drinking wines younger than we do.

One wine that I would always suggest keeping – if you can manage it! - for at least a few months is non-vintage Champagne. Champagne houses are legally obliged to age their wines for a certain period of time before selling them. Vintage Champagnes, produced from a single year’s harvest, must have at least three years’ maturity before release, though many producers keep them much longer. Non-vintage Champagne, however, need only be aged for fifteen months before being released for sale. Buy it, stash it under the stairs or in a cupboard for a few months and you should find that the Champagne has more harmonious, more complex flavours as a result.

Tasting notes on back labels for grander wines often say something like “enjoyable now, but will repay cellaring for a further four or five years” – unless it’s a French wine, when of course it won’t have a back label at all. But will you enjoy it more in five years’ time? There’s only one way to find out. You might find that, in fact, you preferred it in its exuberant, dense youth. Wines do change as they age and it’s down to personal taste whether you prefer older wines to younger ones. The best advice is to buy 6 or 12 bottles of a wine that you like (just not £5 Cava please) and try a bottle a year to see if you like the way it evolves. Why not have a go and then let me know in six years’ time how you got on?

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