Contrary to popular belief, not all wines get better over time. Around 90% of bottles are ready to drink when you buy them.
This doesn’t necessarily it’s downhill from you moment you buy a bottle – some wines maintain their qualities very well over a long time; they just don’t necessarily improve.
As for the elusive 10%, these are complex young wines which, over time, can acquire more balance, softer tannins and aromas and flavours in which the fruits of youth are joined or replaced by a broad range of savoury or earthy flavours, giving the wine complexity.
How do you know when a wine is at its peak? When it tastes best!
Unfortunately the only way to find out is by pulling the cork – and there’s no putting the cork back if it isn’t ready. That’s why you should buy more than one bottle (preferably a case) if you really start to take cellaring seriously.
This section deals with finding wines that can age well (red wines, white wines, dessert wines, fortified wines, sparkling wines, good vintages).
More importantly, it deals with how to age them properly (key factors being temperature, light, humidity, bottle position and movement, along with tips about equipment, organising your wine collection and, if budget allows, building your own cellar from scratch).
The information is adapted from a Cellar Book I wrote for RMB WineX 2007 under the auspices of WINE magazine.
Here’s what to look for:
A top-quality red can be expected to peak between eight and 12 years after the vintage date. Look for deep colour, lots of fruit, brisk acidity and a fair dose of tannins.
- Tannins are the phenolic substances that come from the grape skins, pips and stems, as well as from the barrels in which some wines are fermented and/or matured. They impart colour, flavour and mouthfeel, and manifest on the palate as a dryness (and a slight bitterness in wines of lower quality). They also have a preservative function, slowing down oxidation (but not stopping it altogether, so that it contributes to changes in the aroma and taste of a wine). Tannins soften naturally over time, through interaction with fruit acids and minute amounts of oxygen, but harsh green or bitter tannins will not become more pleasant over time; in a quality wine they should be soft and ripe to begin with.
Small, dark grapes are most likely to produce wines that will develop well – Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, for example. Good quality Bordeaux-style red blends are also a good bet. Despite their relative ‘lightness’, some Pinot Noirs are wonderful after a long stint in a cellar, as are some Pinotages.
Most white wines should be drunk young, particularly those which are unwooded. But some are made with ageing in mind, and here acidity plays a major role.
- Acidity is what gives wine freshness, makes your mouth water. It also protects wine from ‘browning’ or becoming ‘oxidised’.
Riesling and Chenin Blanc stand out as varieties with proven longevity potential (10, 20 years or longer), while Chardonnay can be matured for up to eight years, sometimes longer. Very occasionally, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon can also develop with great interest.
Dessert wines, especially Noble Late Harvest, have good ageing potential (thanks to their high sugar and acidity).
Fortified wines such as Ports and Muscadels can mature well too – preserved by the high alcohol and sugar.
Some people prefer traditional-method sparkling wine (Champagne, Cap Classique) that has some bottle age, with 10 years considered the maximum lifespan of most.
Vintage variation is less crucial inSouth Africathan in Europe, but some years are still better than others:
2002 – a shocker, to be avoided except for wines from trusted producers
2003 – outstanding, particularly for reds
2004 – pretty good with cooler conditions tending to result in lower alcohol levels
2005 – not bad, typified by quite high alcohol levels
2006 – excellent vintage for whites, reds soft with lower alcohol levels
2007 – Good concentration for reds, structure and elegance for whites
2008 – Elegance all round
2009 – one of the best ever
2010 – reminiscent of lousy 2002, choose carefully
2011 – very variable, choose carefully
If you find a wine you believe will go the distance, don’t just buy one bottle – you won’t be able to put it in any sort of context, and you’ll kick yourself if it does develop brilliantly and you don’t have any left!
Rather buy at least three bottles but preferably a six- or 12-bottle case so that you can track the wine’s development, and drink as much of it as possible when it peaks.
From the pantry to a broom cupboard, anywhere wine is stored constitutes a ‘cellar’. The key factors to consider are:
The ideal temperature storage temperature for wine is 10˚ to 11˚ centigrade, but anything between 5˚ and 18˚ is okay – accepting that the wine will develop faster at higher temperatures and more slowly if kept very cold.
Freezing or very hot temperatures will change wines just as they will most foodstuffs – to the point that they could be burnt. A bottle of wine should never experience anything higher than 35˚.
Just as important as the correct temperature is the need to maintain a constant temperature: big seasonal variations should be avoided, while changes during the course of a day should not exceed a few degrees.
- Choose a the coolest place in your home – somewhere in the middle, away from windows and perimeter walls that get a lot of sunlight, or at least on the south side (assuming you’re in the southern hemisphere).
People have known for centuries that bright light can affect wine’s complexity and maturation potential, eventually spoiling it altogether (this is why bottles typically have green glass). It’s fine to switch a light on and off, or open and close a window occasionally, but sunlight is a no-no (the coloured glass only filters out some of the harmful rays).
- Choose as a storage space that’s as dark as possible (apart from when you’re putting wines in or taking them out).
For optimal wine storage, the correct level of moisture in the air (humidity) should be 70 and 75%. Too high and mildew can develop on the labels and corks; too low and the corks can dry out and shrink, allowing air into the bottles (accelerated development at best, spoilage of the wine at worst).
Wines bottled under cork should be kept on their sides, or at least at enough of an angle for the cork to remain in contact with the wine. If the cork dries out, the seal becomes less efficient (more prone to letting air in and/or wine out). Too much exposure to oxygen and the wine goes downhill fast, eventually becoming completely oxidised or ‘off’.
Wines bottled under screwcap can be stored standing upright, but why risk it? Better to become aware of wine leaking out than to be oblivious to air getting into the bottle.
• Inspect closures from time to time to check for leakage. If wine is getting out, it’s highly likely that air is getting in.
If the wine is going to be kept for a long time before drinking (several years or more), it should be left as undisturbed as possible – particularly in the case of red wines that develop a sediment, best left to settle at the bottom or on the side of the bottle.
- Keep out of kitchens and garages (too much human activity, odours, big temperature fluctuations).
- Stay clear of washing machines, hi-fi sound systems and appliances in general – wine doesn’t appreciate being all shook up, no matter how good the vibrations.
- Keep ‘health inspections’ to occasional check-ups – once or twice a year, say.
Wine racks come in galvanised steel (which are most space efficient and look pretty classy) as well as wood and other materials (which can be smart in appearance but tend to hold fewer bottles per square/cubic metre). Avoid racks that might result in scratched bottles or scuffed labels.
A thermometer and humidity gauge are essential for double-checking your wine storage conditions.
Bottle neck-tags are a good idea for flagging where things are – not necessarily attached to every bottle but placed selectively here and there to indicate what’s in a particular rack or on a particular shelf.
Unless you keep track of what you’ve got and where it is, you’ll continually be fiddling – searching for wines you think you have (but might have already drunk!) and disturbing other wines in the process.
Of prime importance is accessibility, i.e. storing wines that will be ready for drinking soonest within easiest reach. White wines generally reach maturity sooner than reds, for example, plus they should be stored in the coolest part of the cellar, preferably near the floor.
Wines can be grouped together according to the following:
- Origin – different regions, districts and wards within South Africa’s Wine of Origin appellation system, or different countries, if you collect foreign wines.
- Type – different grape varieties or styles or variety (e.g. Shiraz, Chardonnay, Bordeaux-style blends etc), as a sub-category from within a particular place of origin if you like.
- Label – wines of the same type or variety from a particular producer.
- Vintage – always bearing in mind that wines from the same vintage will not all be ready for drinking at the same time.
If your passion for wine has become more than a hobby, and your budget allows for it, then building a dedicated cellar is the way to go.
- Instruct the architect to go underground (this will make it much easier to control temperature and humidity).
- If not possible to go underground due to bedrock, water table or foundation issues, build the cellar on the south of the house (for those in the southern hemisphere) or the cost of electricity to control temperature and humidity could be a lot higher.
- Retaining walls (underground) or exterior walls (above ground) should be as thick as possible, with the waterproofing done by professionals.
- Windows, doors and ceilings must be insulated and well sealed.
- The inside surface of any walls exposed to sun on the outside should also be insulated.
- Any gaps around and under the door should be closed with draught excluders. And cover the keyhole!
- A suitable, constant temperature MUST be maintained, at least using an air-conditioner (if not more sophisticated and expensive cooling equipment).
- A humidifier is advisable, or you could simply keep a bowl of water next to a fan (a good idea anyway for air circulation to prevent mustiness).