One of “Poor Robert’s” readers asked me how I know when a wine is ready to drink. I thought about it and realized, I really do it intuitively. I’ve been drinking wine so long, I just have a sense with each different wine type, by region by color, by variety and even then I don’t always get it right. I knew that wouldn’t be a satisfactory answer so I decided to consult a few others and see what the mighty internet had to say. Sadly I got pretty much the same answer from most of my sources, but I think I can construct a cogent blog to help wine drinkers develop their own sense of when a wine’s time is right.
The biggest issue in figuring it all out is the chemistry of the wine, in particular the tannins and acids each particular wine exhibits. Generally white wine grapes produce less and the darker the red grapes the more they exhibit. The individual palate also plays a factor in how the acids get perceived. Some of us like wine with heavy tannins and other don’t, but no matter where you fall in the spectrum you will have an opinion. If you sit and drink with a good book on the deck in the sunshine or by a cozy fire in the winter it is one thing, if you are entertaining you will need to consider the likely tolerances of your guests. If you are eating a steak or seared scallops, it will make a difference. So how do you decide what wine to serve and if it’s ready. The answer can be, glibly, simple — open it and see, or it can be more complex if you don’t have years of experience opening wrong bottles for the occasion or drinking them two young. The rest of this post will try to demystify the process and provide some simple tools I’ve developed over the years. I’ll share a few rules of thumb later in the post to help avoid trouble with decisions, but they are not engraved in stone. The answer for each of us differs, just as our personalities and ethos. So here goes
White wines drink younger than most Reds and so when you pick up a 2013 white wine it will generally be ready to drink right now to about 2016 or 17, but beyond that you risk having the natural aging and oxidization process take the joy out of the experience. It can become bitter and metallic and when it does you know it.
Red Wines drink ?? Deciding when to drink Reds poses a bit more of a problem as Reds cover a broader range of Grape Varieties and considerably more styles of wines. Big Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignons will require more age than say a Pinot Noir or fresh light Merlot. Where the grapes originate and the style of vinting will also paly a part in the decision of when to drink a red wine. Conversely they will also drink well for a longer period of time.
Now to complicate the decision making process even more, wine making has made huge advances in the past several hundred years, but particularly in the last thirty to forty or so as enology has advanced and developed ways to lighten the tannins earlier in a wines life to allow for earlier consumption. Except for a few prominent really big (did I say expensive) wines most are made to be consumed starting two to four after fermentation. If you notice in the markets, we have just begun to see better Reds with 2012 and 2013 vintages, while we have seen 2012 and 2013 vintages of the better whites for a while longer. Good modern wine makers don’t release a wine much before it can be consumed (remember what I said about big expensive wines). Society has pushed the use by date forward with significant growth in demand.
Right now I am drinking Reds with vintages of 2012 and older (usually older). I have consumed a few 2013s, but, primarily because I am tasting them to review. I am drinking Whites 2013 and older because they are mostly ready. The good news — if a wine is not ready it generally can be fixed. If you happen upon a bad or “corked” bottle (very infrequent) you will definitely know it. It can even smell foul or like gasoline and if you taste it the bitterness, and sour after taste will be evident. this wine is toast and can’t be salvaged. When I am tasting a wine to review I will taste it five or six time (same bottle): (1) when I open it I want to see it’s nose, acidity and tannins right out of the gate, (2) next after I aerate it into a decanter to see what impact aeration has on the same three factors, (3) after awhile (time determined by the degree of tannin in the first two) I’ll taste it again to see how it changed, if at all (4) then I’ll drink it with an appropriate meal and then I almost always leave a third of the bottle re-cap it and leave it in my cellar for a couple of days so I can observe the change, (5) the next day and (6) if the change has been significant I’ll do it again after seven days exposed to air (in the capped bottle). This process allows me to gage what the wine will be like over a number of years as the forces oxygenation over time gives me a window into what up to five or so more years of capped bottle aging will do to the wines character.
Why do I care about all this, well simply it tells me when this wine will likely be at its peak for my palate. If I see a lot of change (improvement in flavor and experience) from the beginning to the end of the process it tells mw that the wine has a lot of time left in the bottle and I can age it. If there is little improvement or the wine starts tasting metallic at any point it tells me that it’s time to start consuming it as it is near in the end of its enjoyable life. As a case in point I opened a 1996 Bordeaux the other day and saved a bit in the bottle overnight and it started to turn in a single day. I will be drinking the rest of my stash of this wine this year as it will not improve from where it is today and right now it is really mellow and wonderful. This is quite common with older wines.
Now for Robert’s Rules of (thumb) Order:
- Whites go with Fish and light meals — I generally agree, but I really like sweeter whites with spicy Hispanic food and love Sauvignon Blanc with simply grilled Lamb chops. In the same vein, I really like Pinot Noir with grilled Salmon and any smoked fish. Remember a whole spectrum of whites exist from the super sweet on one end to the very dry and the nature of the wine has a great deal to do with what you do with it.
- Reds go with meat — Again I generally agree and I’ve already noted a few exceptions in the white discussion. If you grill and char you red meat go with a bigger Red Bordeaux, Cabernet Savignon, or a Malbec. If it is pork, try a Merlot, Petite Syrah, a Shiraz or a Pinot Noir or a big Chardonnay.
- Fowl goes both ways — We generally think of white wine with fowl, but especially with game birds, any of the reds you would drink with Pork go with go really well with fowl.
- Always decant red wine — maybe but taste it first, it may not need it. With really older wines I decant and serve for the sole purpose of relieving a little of the must and it will have a lot of sediment that needs filtering out.
- Sediment in wine is bad — This is true to the extent that it is annoying to drink wine with sand or grit in it, but is doesn’t ruin the wine. just remove it by filtration. Wine filters are best, but cheese cloth and in a pinch a coffee filter will do.
- Vintages do make a difference — This is true, especially for big reds. It also applies to all other wines, as it will impact character changes between different vintages and when a particular vintage drinks best. Some will require more age and others less based on the vintage. Watching for these differences is part of the fun of wine tasting
- Always keep a wine diary or journal — If you’re into comparing vintages of the same or similar wines this is a great idea. If you are just into enjoying the bottle in the moment, it is not necessary and only provides value when you can’t remember a wine and want to serve it again.
Well have I covered it all? Not by any stretch of the imagination, but what I have done is provide a little information that enables each of you to learn how to decide when a wine is right for you and to develop your own style and sense of direction. Most of all wine must be enjoyed so treat it (serve or store) so that you enjoy each wine experience as they come along.