Oh Tannin Bomb, Oh Tannin Bomb… tips on cellaring your wine

I don’t know how we did it, but we made it through the gauntlet of holiday parties, only missing one of the events we’d committed to attend (sorry Melissa & Bijan!).  So now our palates (and waistlines) have a momentary reprieve before a week of festivities, and the mountain of goodies that awaits us at the houses of Cole’s Grandmas.

Which is good.  I think I’ve had enough young, tannic California wines for a few days.  Don’t get me wrong, they were pricey, block-buster wines, generously opened on our behalf.  They were enjoyable in their own right, and  I appreciate our hosts’ kindness.

But the most memorable wine from this month’s events was either the 1992 Napa Cabernet from Dominus or the very different 1993 Napa Cab from Heitz  Cellar.  These aged beauties possess a charm and finesse their younger brethren simply can’t offer until they too have survived some 15 years of quiet repose.

Which brings me to today’s topic – cellaring your wine.

What Wine Shoud I Cellar?
Actually, only the best 5% of wines will benefit from cellaring.  All the rest are intended to be enjoyed within a year or two from the date on the label – not a problem for the average American, who measures the period of time period between purchase and consumption in hours, not years.  Sadly, most wines that reward aging are the pricier ones (as a rule of thumb, don’t bother aging a wine priced less than $20 or $25)

Of the wines intended for cellaring, most of them are red wines produced from noble grape varieties (Pinot, Nebbiolo, Cabernet and other Bordeaux blends, Syrah, etc.)  The tannins in these red wines act as a natural preservative as they get softened over time in the bottle – a process that requires microscopic amounts of oxygen (the amount left in the bottle when corked) and several years’ worth of time.  Sadly, such wines tend to be pricey.  If you’re not rolling in surplus cash these days, I’d still encourage you to arrange for a monthly or bi-monthly or quarterly budget, perhaps agreeing to spend $35 or $55 or $?? on a single bottle each time, then laying it down for future pleasures.

“But I Don’t Have A Fancy Cellar!”
Don’t let such arguments derail your plans for future enological pleasures!  Few collectors have showcase cellars like the one pictured here.  And few of us need such space.

For new or smaller collections, the simplest storage solution is a sturdy case box.  Any good wine merchant will gladly provide such a box for free, though they tend to break them down shortly after delivery, so you may be wise to ask them to set one aside before going in to pick it up.  Such boxes are printed with a producer’s logo on them, and are used to deliver the wine – 12 bottles at a time – to the merchant’s store.  They come in various levels of thickness, so ask for one with thick corrugated cardboard separators between the 12 bottles, as you’ll want to store the box on its side (so the corks won’t dry out) and flimsier dividers won’t support the weight of sideways bottles.  As your collection accumulates, fill up the bottom row first, then proceed upwards so new bottles rest on top of older ones.  Even the sturdiest of cardboard dividers will give way if the bottles don’t rest on top of each other.

To assure your simple cellar ages your wine safely over the coming years, you’ll want to locate it in a place that meets the following criteria:

  1. Darkness – Find a place where there is little or no light.  Light is the enemy of aged wine, a catalyst for un-wanted reactions.
  2. Coolness – The temperature should be constant (without rapid swings), and moderate!  Few of us live in a 55 degree house (I hope, for your sake), but wine ages just fine at warmer temperatures (though more rapidly).
  3. Vibe-Free – Wine ages most gracefully if it is not subjected to vibrations.  Those living next to the train tracks, this is difficult, though I once heard of someone who cut two racketballs in half and placed them under her cases of wine to dampen vibration.  Seemed to work!

When Do I Begin Drinking My Aged Wine?
The biggest challenge wine collectors have is balancing the acquisition and consumption of the collection.  We use software to guide such things, but small collectors need not invest in such tools (even the free ones require considerable data entry time).   Ultimately, this comes down to a matter of discipline wherein one drinks less than one acquires during the building phase, then MATCHES the rate of acquisition once the collection is at the desired size, and then drinks FASTER than the rate of acquisition until finally, the last bottle is served on one’s death bed.  The inability of most collectors to achieve this idealistic balance is why so many collections find their way to the auction block after a collector’s surviving family members find themselves in possession of a massive collection and don’t know what to do with it.

But aside from balancing consumption with acquisition, there is simply the matter of how long to hold a wine before it tastes perfectly aged.  This is impossible to answer definitively, but here are some useful guidelines that err on the short side of ageability (both to encourage more people to collect and age their wines, as well as to avoid the frustrating experience of letting a wine age until it is past its point of pleasurable drinkability!)  The following are guidelines – it’s always best to seek advice on specific wines from the merchant who sells them to you.

  • New World Syrah/Shiraz: 4 – 6 years
  • New World Pinot Noir: 5-7 years
  • Domestic Cabernet/Bordeaux Blends: 7 – 10 years
  • Old World wines of each type, add 25% – 50% more time

Should you have a larger collection in need of an affordable storage solution, I think I’ve found a supplier for some of the best options available anywhere.  Check them out here.  Whatever storage solution proves best for you, I hope you’ll begin storing wines to enjoy in several years.  It is one of life’s taste experience you simply can’t get any other way.  But I should warn you.  Once you’ve developed a taste for beautifully aged wines, you’ll find it difficult to go back to the old tannin bombs!

Dave the Wine Merchant

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