Older is Better
There’s great anxiety among oenophiles about ideal consumption time.
– Lettie Teague, Wall Street Journal 7/3/14
I was hosting two couples out here at the vineyard yesterday, and one appreciative gentleman sipped a Pinot and exclaimed, “Man, that’s good.” I, in turn, reminded him of what a good vintage 2012 turned out to be, how these wines are youthful right now, charged with young fruit but that in a few years the wine would be even better. I explained that with time in the bottle, the subtle nuances would develop, the aroma would become more ethereal, and the wine would continue to evolve in that direction, getting even tastier over time. Then, of course, we discussed the peak time to drink our Pinots, taking into consideration the challenge of advising for a range of personal preferences. He responded, “I can’t hang on to the stuff long enough! I drink it up. You want me to sit on it how long?”
In 2000, Vanessa and I toured cellars in Burgundy. At Domaine Dujac, we were discussing the merits of partial whole cluster in the fermentation when M. Seysses left to pull a bottle of 1976 Les Amoureuses to demonstrate how the stem flavors age. At that moment I was pretty amazed that he had that wine lying around (and even further that he was willing to open a bottle of it for us!) He said he holds back a quantity for his Michelin three star restaurant customers. He ages the wine for them so they’ll have perfectly aged wine to pair with their fine cuisine. To be able to hang on to inventory like that, putting off revenue for years! That’s the ideal I’m working towards; aging the wine for you. In the meantime, like almost every other fine winery in the world, I’m asking you to hold on to our wine for a little while.
Buy more wine than you can drink. That way you will be able to age most of your wine until it is in the ideal window for consuming. That window depends on who you are and the specific wine. We suggest you age our wines to allow for the identity to come through. When young, the characteristics of many wines are readily apparent and on the surface, like young kids, all knees and elbows. As the wine ages, the various features coalesce and become a single form.
– Andy Peay, Vine to Wine, Sun Valley, July 2014
I’m writing this column to urge you, nay, to implore you, to create a little space in your life for aging your wines. And in my experience, it’s really not that difficult. You can do it, I know you can. I’ve done it in some pretty challenging circumstances. Here’s what you need to know.
Temperature: The temperature of the wine should pretty much stay the same its whole life. Don’t stress out over the ideal temperature – should it be 56 or 62 degrees – it really does not matter. Anywhere between 50-70 degrees is fine as long as the temperature does not swing greatly over short time periods. Where you lie on that spectrum will dictate at what rate certain processes in the wine occur. Daily temperature fluctuation, however, is your enemy. It creates cork issues and can spoil the wine.
Humidity: While it is better to have constant humidity, not too dry, not too wet, it is not as important as constant temperature. You should store the wine on its side so the cork stays wet and the seal stays tight preventing spoilage. Only if you find rapid development of a large ullage (space between the cork and the wine) in your bottles should you be concerned that your cellar is too arid.
Location: Yes, but where do I put it? Look around your house or apartment, you’ll be surprised what available space lies undiscovered. A corner of your basement, beneath the stairs, a corner of your garage, the crawl space between the studs beneath the spare bedroom floor (I envision a large hinged floor piece). Perhaps that hall closet filled with old coats you never wear. Your adult kids’ cast-off clothes they’ve long outgrown? That should go to Salvation Army to make room for your own personal salvation. And I recognize this may sound a touch bourgeois, but if you must, hire one of those organizers. You pay them to sort and store – which you are perfectly capable of doing yourself – but someone else looks you in the face and forces you to decide what stays and what goes. Highly recommended. I just had my office painted. Years of papers, weather reports, old answering machines, various cords; it all had to come out and to be carted back in – a great time to cull. And the space! The space to floor stack wine!
Your scattered locales with their different climates provide an array of challenges. Personally, I envy the East Coaster who pretty much, standard issue, has a basement of some sort, because that is the easiest route. I’ve had to make do with two garages and a converted free-standing concrete cistern/root cellar. The latter was the vineyard wine cellar for years. I cut a hole in the side of the concrete-walled little hut (it had power) for the Breezeaire, tacked stiff insulation to the ceiling, and viola. Now, of course, coastal northern California doesn’t get sustained sub-freezing temperatures, and they are sub-desert levels during the warmest months. I generally would not recommend building an exterior cellar – whether a shed attached to your house or a free-standing structure – simply because weatherizing the thing really is a bit of work. It is doable, so long as you know what you are getting into.
You who have serious winters have a heating unit somewhere heating your house, usually below the house, in a dark enclosed space. You have the heat warming the basement in the winter, and a cool, subterranean space in the summer, pretty much guaranteeing 67 F, or lower, year round. Passive climate control really is okay for you people. I would recommend an enclosure, a cabinet, some container of sorts to help keep the temperature (and humidity) more or less constant. My brother carried a 600 bottle cabinet around as he moved ten times in his twenties and thirties. It was a bear to pack and unpack every time he moved but he managed to squeeze it into every apartment in San Francisco.
As for converting a space, where there is a need, there is an entrepreneur aiming to fill that need. Handy men can frame a room in the basement or add an insulated attachment to the house, or even bust a hole in an interior closet for the cooling unit to vent into the house (perfectly fine, not dangerous, see photos below.) The various sized spaces one might want to turn into a wine cellar are well-served by a range of cooling units designed solely for keeping wine at 55 F. I am now the proud owner of three Breezeaires, first one put in use in …1999? All still run. There are plenty of other brands to choose from. I’m not partial, just telling you what I’ve tried.
Why again should I do this? Not worth it, you say? Come to one of our wine dinners. We pour library wines aged in our winery’s cellar and pulled just for wine dinners. They are selected based on where we think the wine is in its evolution and what is best suited for the dish. Right now we are pouring 2006 and 2007 Estate Chardonnay, 2003 through 2009 Pinot noir, and 2002 through 2009 Syrah. Customers always excitedly ask if they can buy some. I regretfully say, “not yet, working on that. In the meantime, why don’t you buy some for your cellar.”