Lessons in wine: When is the ideal drinking window?

Renee Kuo
Waiting to drink is not our strongest suit (Source: Getty)
Like any food product, wines have an ideal window of time in which they should be consumed. Unlike food, however, wines don’t come with a sell-by date. How, then, to determine when to pull the cork?

Generally speaking, wines not intended for aging are priced at the low end of the spectrum, probably bottled under screwcap. Some, like Beaujolais Nouveau, are produced specifically to be enjoyed during the year in which the wine was harvested. Others like lighter white wines including Muscadet if aged on its lees, can age comfortably for ten to twenty years. Most - and this goes for almost all rosés - are meant to be consumed within one to two years.

However, given that research has shown 80-90 per cent of wines purchased at retail stores are consumed within 24 hours, it seems that waiting to drink is not our strongest suit. Is it possible to drink a wine too early? The answer is a resounding yes. Many red wines have harsh tannins in their youth which need to be softened over time. Tannins are the chemical compounds not just in grapes but in tea and coffee. Think of how the astringency of your favourite hot, caffeinated tipple is mitigated with a touch of milk. That same effect happens when wines age in bottle, as over time the tannins bind together and fall out of the wine as sediment.

Bordeaux is the wine most commonly aged long-term; the heavy tannins of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape are the major contributor in allowing the wines to retain their structure. While many Napa wines are similarly comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, the warmer weather ripens the tannins and makes the wines more approachable in their youth than their French counterparts. Heat exposure to the grapes on the vine or wine in the bottle causes faster maturity, so beware how you store your wine – in the kitchen cupboard above the stove is not an ideal location: your red wines will end up tasting pruney and your white wines will taste oxidised, like a cut and peeled apple left out to brown.

Not all wines that have been aged for decades taste of Port, however. Red wines can develop tertiary aromas of leather, game, tobacco and truffles: think of an aged Barolo or Rhone. White wines develop aromas of hazelnuts, biscuits, and toasted brioche: think of aged white Burgundy or Champagne.

As we mentioned last week, vintage comes in to play when considering a wine’s ageability, though be aware that what critics deem a phenomenal year may mean that the wine is drinking beautifully now and not necessarily that it will be the longest-lived. In fact, many very good vintages do not receive the highest scores because they take longer to become approachable.

My best advice regarding when to drink your wines was given to me by a winemaker: purchase at least one case so that you can drink your bottles over time and gauge for yourself when they’re drinking perfectly for your palate.


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