By Rick VanSickle
With the vast majority of wines consumed a mere hours after they are purchased, it’s an unfortunate fact of life that is robbing consumers of the optimum in pleasure they can receive from wine.
It’s particularly important that big red wines spend at least a little time in the cellar (or wherever you store your wines, preferably in a cool, humid, dark spot in the basement) while they mellow out, the tannins soften and the fruits, oak and spice integrate.
Most wineries sell their oak-aged red wines about two years after the vintage, the earliest they possibly can after 12 to 18 months in oak barrels and some further time aging in the bottle. After that, it’s left up to the consumer.
Varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, can improve for 10 to 15 years in a good vintage while Pinot Noir can usually benefit from five to 10 years in the cellar.
For unoaked aromatic white wines, they are made to be consumed in their youth but most experts will recommend at least some resistance to drinking them immediately. Oaky Chardonnays or other barrel-aged whites can benefit from a couple of years of cellaring.
The reason red wines need cellaring are the tannins, which are found only in red wines when grape juice is fermented with the tannin-rich skins. For white wines, the juice is squeezed out of the grape skins before fermentation leaving no tannins or colour.
Tannins in wine can be bitter and make many red wines simply unapproachable in their youth. Aging smooths out the tannins making the wine more palatable. Other factors are at work, as well. Heavy oak aging and ripe fruits can also render red wines a little unbalanced in their youth.
Consumers also have to be mindful of the vintage when deciding to cellar their wines. A light, under-ripe vintage can be high in tannic structure but lack fruit. No amount of cellaring will help these wines. Generally, the best vintages and the top red wines from the producer benefit most from cellaring.
A good way to follow your wines in the cellar for optimum drinkability is to buy several bottles of the same wine and try one every year until you’re happy with it.
In Niagara, we don’t have a long history of cellaring our wines because it’s a relatively new industry here. We just don’t find a lot of Niagara back-vintage wines on store shelves or at the wineries. But, make no mistake, big Niagara red wines from good vintages always taste better, smoother and integrated with the proper amount of time in the cellar.
I recently raided my own modest cellar to put the theory to the test. I chose three different varietals (one blend) from three different vintages (2003, 2004 and 2005) and producers to see how they’ve evolved. Here’s what I opened:
Strewn Cabernets 2003 ($14 for current vintage, 4 stars) â€” This is from Strewn’s entry level collection and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. This showed the most profound difference after seven years from the vintage. I wish now that I bought a case. Mellow cherry fruit with beautiful oak and spice on the nose. The cherry flavours are joined by cedar, subtle spice and soft tannins. Perfectly mature now. Verdict: A much better wine with bottle age.
Harbour Estates Petit Verdot/Malbec 2004 (made in small quantities at the winery, 4.5 stars) â€” This is a rare blend made in Niagara and, though I didn’t try this six years ago it has most certainly benefited from cellaring. Rich currants, raspberry, plums, cocoa, licorice and exotic spices on the nose. The palate reveals a harmonious wine with juicy fruits, licorice/tar, cherry/ raspberry, underlying earth and spice and drying tannins. Verdict: Gorgeous wine to drink now.
Chateau des Charmes St. Davids Bench Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($26 and still available, 4.5 stars) â€” This winery suggests drinking this wine five to 10 years after the vintage. I would go with the latter. It’s a big, brooding wine with cassis and currants fruits on the nose and bolstered by sweet spices and oak overtones. It still shows its teeth in the mouth with firm tannins, structure and loaded with black fruits, tar and an earthy finish. Verdict: Still evolving, more time in the cellar would pay big dividends.