Do I Dare Open It? Part 2
In my last article, I was discussing if I should open the bottle of 1995 Inniskillin Icewine. I talked about storage issues, but we need to address how wine ages over time. More importantly, should you even waste your time saving a special bottle?
Should you Age your wine?
First, we need to talk about what is involved in wine ageing. When a producer creates a wine and bottles it for sale, most of the time they want you to drink it asap so they can sell you more. Remember, the majority of the wine produced today is designed to be consumed immediately and not aged. Most wine will last two to three years sitting around your house unless you subject it to extreme conditions.
Let’s discuss what elements are involved in ageing. The four elements involved are:
- Acid levels
- Alcohol levels
- Residual Sugar levels
- Tannin levels
For all these elements, you require high levels to aid in ageing. For example, you would like a wine to have a high alcohol by volume. Each element acts like a preservative to help increase the viability of the wine over time. Now here is the key part to ageing. In order to age a wine past the normal 2-3 year mark:
- 3 out of the four elements above must have moderate to high levels to extend the shelf life for a long time.
Here are a few a few examples that hopefully can explain this.
- A Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa.
A typical Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa will have the following characteristics:
- They tend to have moderate to high acid levels from the grapes.
- They tend to be high in alcohol (14% abv and above).
- They have little to no residual sugar since much of the sugar was fermented into alcohol.
- They have moderate to high tannin levels from the ratio of grape skin to pulp (these grapes are very small so lots of skin) and during fermentation, the tannins are extracted from the skins into the wine.
Every element except residual sugar is moderate to high. These elements work together to help preserve the wine past three years.
- A Chardonnay Grand Cru from Burgundy
Its characteristics are:
- Moderate to high acid.
- Moderate to high alcohol (hover around 13.5%).
- Low residual sugars (due to fermentation).
- Moderate tannin levels (please remember that the wine is exposed to oak storage).
Put the above together and you can age chardonnay for longer than three years.
- Ice Wine from Canada
Its characteristics are the following:
- High acid levels.
- Moderate alcohol levels (my bottle is at 11 % abv).
- High residual sugars (I’m not sure of the residual sugar levels of my bottle but by law, it must be a minimum of 125 g sugar/L).
- Low tannins.
Three of the four elements are moderate to high so I know that the wine can age past 3 years.
I hope this helps explain briefly what is involved in ageing. The simple way you can tell is to check your wine for these four elements to see if you would even consider ageing in the first place.
The Big Question
Assuming you have a wine that can age past three years, the immense question is for how long. I’ve talked with some master sommeliers and winemakers on this and their answer is fantastic:
That’s it, you make an educated guess based upon past vintages and information that you can find. The first Master Sommelier that I trained under told my class a story about being with a winemaker in France. They were discussing how the wines have changed over the vineyard’s history, so they decided to do some research. Starting at a particular year, they opened a bottle from each year back 100 hundred years in one afternoon. That’s 100 bottles opened and sampled.
First, the Master Sommelier said that the best year was 1942 out of the 100. I have no idea how you would even remember that after all of that tasting unless you were taking notes on each bottle. More importantly, what always stuck with me about ageing was this fact:
Unless you have a reference, you are going to try and make an educated guess.
Think about it. He was able to try 100 bottles of the same vineyard to see how it evolved over time. The winemaker may have changed, and you can argue terroir changes. However, when you can sample multiple bottles, you are able to see how the ageing is developing and see when the wine peaks and then starts to fall away.
Look at it this way. When I’m asked about long term aging, I tell everyone to purchase a minimum of 6 bottles of that year. Let’s use the example of a Sonoma Merlot. You purchase 7 bottles of the 2018 vintage. One you would sample today and make notes and you would cellar the other 6. After 3-4 years, I would open one of the bottles and make notes about how it has changed and compare it to the first bottle. If it’s not ready in your opinion, then you let the 5 remaining bottles age longer. A year or two later, I would open another bottle and see if I like it at this point. If it’s ready to drink, then drink the remaining bottles over a year or so. By using this method, you are making notes to see how the bottles change along with helping to develop your palate to make educated guesses for the future.
Please remember one key point – you make the decision on what you like and don’t like so you judge when it’s ready. You can find numerous suggestions related to vintage charts. It’s not that they are wrong; it’s about what you like so trust your judgement.
Now that we know all the above information, I’m still stuck. I have a potentially great bottle from 1995 that could be past its prime, peaking now or still not ready. I do not have any bottles to compare it with unless someone wants to donate bottles to my cause, and we do a massive vintage tasting of ice wine over the years (THAT WOULD BE SO AWESOME). I’m also unable to find accurate tasting notes regarding Inniskillin ice wine over the years.
Now it comes down to the educated guess. Should I open it and be disappointed because It might have lasted longer or it’s past its prime? Is it ready now? As always, your feedback is welcomed, appreciated and loved.
BTW, you can see above in the picture that I have a vintage 2004 Dom Perignon Rose…….when should I open that one?