Under the heading “Time to Stop Cellaring Wine”, wine critic Oliver Styles argues that cellaring wine is snobbish, lacks precision, results in a loss of quality, and encourages wine fraudsters.
Styles’ rant was published on wine-searcher.com, one of the world’s most comprehensive wine websites, which is based in Auckland.
I believe Styles misses the point. It’s not cellaring wine that needs to be discontinued, it’s destructive cellaring that should be banned.
Storing wine in excessively warm or fluctuating temperatures will rapidly reduce quality. We wouldn’t leave a bottle of milk on the kitchen bench for a couple of days in summer, so why expose wine to a daily temperature swing of 10C or more? A temperature-controlled storage cabinet will extend the life of your precious bottles of wine but, failing that, you should buy a max/min thermometer and use it to find a spot with a peak of less than 20C, and minimal fluctuation.
Styles is quite right when he claims that the art of cellaring lacks precision. Alcohol, acidity and tannins – components that influence the ability of wine to age slowly and positively – vary so much from wine to wine that it is difficult to dictate cellaring guidelines with confidence. What works for one wine doesn’t necessarily work for another.
One of the most destructive forces at work in a wine cellar is the owner. Most wine-cellar owners like collecting things. They have what I call a hoarder mentality. That’s fine when collecting snuff boxes or toy cars, but with wine, the clock is ticking. It deserves to be enjoyed when it reaches a peak of quality.
How do you know when a wine is in peak condition? Styles writes: “People draw up timeframes and give suggestions for how long wines should be cellared but there are no rules and certainly no precision around it. It’s almost as if the category is meaningless. After all, most of these wines we plebs don’t understand (of course). But, if we’re honest, they all taste the same anyway.”
Wine doesn’t reach a pointy peak of quality. It is more like a plateau. Experience has taught me that if a wine has a potential life of 10 years, it is likely to have a plateau of half that length of time. At the beginning of the plateau, its taste will be different from what it will be at the end of the plateau. It is better to open a wine too early than too late.
I have gained a great deal of pleasure from my wine cellar and suffered very few disappointments. There is the pleasure of anticipation and the thrill when I finally do open a special bottle that is in great condition. It is a bit like hitting a perfect shot at golf – it sustains my interest in buying wines now to drink later.
Wine takes time to make. An important step in its production is the nurturing stage, from fermentation to barrel and then to bottling. The French describe that critical step as élevage, which means bringing up or raising wine from its raw state until it is bottled.
Once a wine is bottled, we can choose to drink it in its youthful state, or allow the flavours to integrate and develop, which is when the texture of red wine typically becomes silkier and smoother. My experience suggests that the slower some wines develop in bottle, the higher the level of quality they achieve.
Like cheese, some wines are best enjoyed while their fresh and exuberant flavours last, but the greatest of wines need time to fully express themselves.
Bob’s Top Picks
2016 Clearview The Basket Press, Hawke’s Bay, $175
This label is reserved for wines from exceptional vintages. It is an undisclosed blend of red grape varieties. Medium-bodied, concentrated red with blackberry, raspberry, violet, spicy oak and a suggestion of fresh herbs. Delicious now, better later.
2019 Church Road Grand Reserve Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc, Hawke’s Bay, $40
One of the better Hawke’s Bay barrel-fermented sauvignon blancs that I have tasted. Subtle nectarine/tree fruit flavours mingle with a distinct oyster shell/mineral character and subliminal oak. Good food wine. Bone dry with mouth-watering finish. Will repay cellaring.
2019 Barone Montalto Terre Siciliane IGT Syrah, Italy, $24.99
Deeply tinted syrah with intense blackcurrant, cassis, black pepper, violet and liquorice flavours. Perhaps a little jammy but at an acceptable level given the warm growing conditions. It certainly packs quite a punch for a wine at this price point.
Read more from Bob at therealreview.com