What makes a wine cellar-worthy?
Cellaring wine can be an intriguing and rewarding hobby, but if you play this form of oenological roulette long enough, a disaster is almost certain to strike. Like it did in one of my climate-controlled wine fridges last weekend.
Having rearranged a shelf to make room for a couple more bottles, I noticed a telltale red stain seeping down the back of the shelf and working its way towards the bottles below. Please, please, please let it be the lousy bottle of 1978 Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz with the torn label that I knew had been misfiled on one of the Grange shelves…. Of course not. As Murphy’s Law would have it, the wine was an Australian icon, a Penfolds Grange from 1963. And the culprit was that little piece of Portuguese bark that acts as a stopper to close the bottle. Half the bottle was gone, and the cork had disintegrated into tiny pieces of flotsam on a small sea of Max Schubert’s hermitage. I could have cried.
“It’s only a bottle of wine,” my 10-year-old son reminded me. And he was right, of course. But it got me thinking, how do we know whether a particular wine is cellar-worthy or if it should just be used to wash down Friday night’s lasagne?
Australians are not renowned for being patient with their wine, statistically speaking. It is thought that well over 80% of the wine is consumed within 24 hours of being purchased. In which case, it may be that the topic of cellaring wine is probably of little interest to the majority of the wine-drinking public. But this is a wine column, so please indulge me!
So how do we decide if a red or white is worthy of taking up space in our home cellars? Short of asking the winemaker, there are a few simple rules that can be used as a general guide:
- In a white wine, high sugar levels are a natural preservative – so sauternes and stickies will normally endure with time on their side.
- High acidity in white wines will give a resilience to chemical changes and increase endurance.
- Higher levels of alcohol will also enable a wine to stand the test of time.
- Tannins allow red wines to develop over time and mellow with age.
- A wine that isn’t complex (think balance and integrity) in its youth will not become complex in time.
- Lower priced wines are rarely worthy of taking up space on the rack!
Although it’s a tad unfair to generalise, it’s not likely that the average sauvignon blanc or pinot gris will be drinkable in 20 years’ time, but a highly acidic riesling or chardonnay might be. And among the reds, it’s far more likely that a tannic cabernet or shiraz will become more approachable with time on its side, than a lighter merlot or grenache. I have a cellar that’s overweight in old Hunter Valley Semillon and Clare Valley Riesling – mainly because the higher acidity of the styles should give it legs to see the distance. But that’s not to say that a well-crafted chardonnay won’t cellar well as the acidity in many of our premium products is more than sufficient to give them the potential to attractively see out their 21st birthday!
On the red wines racks, I tend to be patient with Italian styles like Barolo and Amarone or with the French Bordeaux and Bourgogne pinot noir. Among the Australian reds, a Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon will generally have enough tannin to develop nicely in time, as will a highly alcoholic Barossa Shiraz or an Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo. But the well-credentialled classics like the shiraz offerings from Penfolds or The Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier are as reliable as any; though most Clare Valley reds will also ably represent their region in the age-ability stakes.
My mother used to tell me that bad experiences are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them, so I plan to take a new approach following my recent Grange tragedy – share the mature wines in the cellar with appreciative friends before it’s too late. Any takers for a vertical clean-ut of my Langmeil Freedom Shiraz?