A few days ago, a gentleman came into the shop carrying a few bottles of wine he'd put in his well-maintained personal cellar some years ago. He wanted to know how much longer to store them.
He also brought a list of more than 200 bottles he had saved for many years, some for as much as 30 years. What he learned from me surprised him.
This happens to me frequently, so I'm pretty on top of the cellar scene and know which wines fare well and which do not and why. Let me give you the Wine Whisperer's Cellar 101 short course on storing wine:
- Temperature limits — This is a crucial element of good wine storage. Wines should not exceed 70 degrees for extended lengths of time. More than three months of 70-plus-degree temperature can deteriorate the wine, and the warmer it gets the more rapid the deterioration. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but over the years I've seen pretty good cellars prematurely age their wines simply because of too much heat. It is best to have little temperature variation over a 30-day period, with the wine sitting optimally at 54 degrees. Keeping the wine just under 60 is also OK for extended periods. Over 60 degrees is where the problems begin to occur.
- Light — Keeping the cellar in low light is best. Light can damage the wine for extended storage. Beware of purchasing a wine from a "cellar" with a faded label. I have seen folks trying to pass off "older" wine with the declaration that the wine had proof of age by the faded label. All this tells me is that the wine was subjected to intense light (and possibly heat) over the years.
- Aging qualities of red wines — There is a myth in the wine-buying world that all red wines age well. This has never been the case, although the wine industry, especially in the 1960s and '70s in California, perpetuated the idea that red wines "aged" forever. Thankfully, wineries and consumers have become far more sophisticated over the years and are more educated in red wine maturation. Unfortunately, the gentleman who came into my shop had a heavy load of simple French Beaujolais and quite old California zinfandel, neither of which age well.
- Aging qualities of white wines — The idea that no white wine ages well is also a myth. Some of the greatest wines I have tasted from cellars have been French white Burgundy, German rieslings and French Sauterne. I have also tasted older gewurztraminers from France and have been astonished by how complex and wonderful these wines can be. Much to my gentleman's surprise, I told him that the eight bottles of 15-year-old French white Burgundy that he had paid quite a bit of money for were still in fine shape but should be consumed within the next five years or so.
- Half bottles and larger format bottles — In my modest personal cellar, I have quite a few half bottles (375 milliliters) of nicer red wines intended for the cellar such as Brunello, Barolo, various red Burgundy and a smattering of Rhone wines. Admittedly, these wines' staying power is reduced by about 15 percent to 20 percent over full bottles, but they can be very handy to have around and very collectible. With the variety of well-made half bottles coming to market, the choices are very good for aging or drinking. The larger, double bottles can age twice as long as regular bottles but should be purchased with the understanding that they are far less useful and practical in the long run for the cellar.
Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.