When is it Time?
By: George Balling
When is it time to drink this wine? It is one of the most frequent questions we get from customers and readers alike. And like so many things under the big umbrella subject of wine the answer is, it depends. It depends on a lot of factors, not the least of which is your own personal taste. Me nor any other wine professional can give a definitive answer that this bottle or that bottle should be consumed at this point, because we all have individual tastes. The best advice I can give anyone on when a bottle should be consumed is drink it at the point that it tastes really good to you. Most of us when we find a wine, we like we buy multiple bottles. When you do buy several, you should open one every few months or a couple times a year and when you say, “wow that tastes really great”, that is the time to get after them.
A related question we get often is from folks who have a single bottle of a wine that perhaps they were gifted, or left from a case of wine they really loved. Most times the wine has ample age on it. The answer then becomes open it soon. It may get better with more age or it may not, and there is only one way to know what you have on your hands. Drink it! The next time you have a special meal or are with someone special just do it, or it will likely languish in your wine rack to the point where it may be headed down the far side of the hill.
That is the most important, practical and specific advice for every wine consumer. There are some generalities that can help you know when to drink a wine, and some notions to avoid when assessing a wine’s age worthiness. First and foremost, avoid the idea that the age ability of wine is determined by the price of the bottle. This is especially true when it comes to domestic productions. There are many US wineries that make their wine in a very fruit forward, rich and opulent way. Here’s the rub. To get that rich fruit, many times you will sacrifice tannin and acid which are the qualities that give wine longevity. So, while they are expensive wines made in this style they are meant to be drunk now. In fact, if you try to age wines like these it will end in sadness.
Similarly, I have tasted inexpensive wines with such substantial acid that they can easily spend 10 years in the bottle and still be on their way to their apex of drinkability.
Color is another indicator to avoid when judging when to drink a wine. There are whites, rosés and reds that are all equally age worthy. I have told the story before of when we moved to CDA to open the shop 15 years ago. We had white wines from 2 different Napa Valley wineries, Joseph Phelps and Trefethen that we had lost track of. When we were unpacking wine from the move, we found some bottles that dated to the early 1990s. Everyone of the bottles we opened was beautiful, perfect acid had kept these whites vibrant and delicious, and it was all due to how they were made, and not at all that they were white wines.
Winemaking is first and foremost the indicator of how a wine will age. Winemakers whether working with their own estate vineyards or with grapes that they purchase will tell the grower when they want their grapes harvested and what specifications they want as far as acid, sugar and other qualities. Those who are crafting wines to age longer will harvest their grapes when the acids are higher and the sugars are lower. Sometimes this will result in night time harvesting or perhaps picking earlier in the growing season. Those looking for a more approachable wine in its youth will look for harvesting with more sugar and lower acids.
Another generalization that is fairly accurate is that European wines age better than some domestics. In Europe they do tend to harvest when the grapes are not as ripe and the sugars are lower. While we carry some of the most age worthy higher end wines from Europe like Chave Hermitage white and red, Domaine de la Romanee Conti and others that can easily age decades, many more gently priced bottlings from Europe that are vinted in a similar fashion show extraordinary longevity.
While we are happy to discuss with all of our customers when it is time to drink any particular bottle, we will base that advice on what we know of the winemaking. Your best bet though is to pay attention to your own palate on when the time is right.