Ah yes, the wines we save for years in hopes of those magical tasting moments that age worthy wines can bring to us. A well aged wine can offer a sensory experience that spans from delicate and elegant to downright mind-blowing in complexity. Much of the experience has to do with the type of wine. With reds, you need to start with a wine that has enough tannin & fruit to last through the aging process. Then, as the wine ages in the bottle and the tannins soften you are left hoping the fruit will survive long enough for the wine to achieve that perfect balance we all hope for when we take a sip.
So how do we handle these elder statesmen of red wines? The rules of aging red wines are fairly straight forward. All wines tend to age better in cellar-like environments. Bottles should lay down on their sides in racks or other holders in a place that is dark and cool with enough humidity to prevent the corks from drying. Having a constant environment is very important. Wines do not like fluctuations in temperature or constant exposure to vibrations and sounds. Whites tend to prefer cooler temps than reds. Whites also age much differently than red wines. Often, a well-aged white wine will take on a wonderful hay or straw color. I will not go too far talking whites because I do not have a ton of experience with aged whites outside of a few great Rieslings I have had the honor of trying over the years.
So, back to red wine and picking the right time to open them. My choice is to have a few bottles of the same vintage from one producer. As time passes you can pop a bottle and enjoy the way the wine evolves as time passes on. It may sound dull, but it is actually really interesting to take some tasting notes and then look back on them every time you open that particular wine. You will be amazed at the way the wine can change. I even find that I can bring back the flavors of the wine I tasted a year or so earlier.
If you do not want to stock so many bottles of the same wine then you can choose to rely on the experts. Read tasting notes from folks like Robert Parker, Steven Tanzer, or countless other wine pros. Also check out notes on particular vintages from the varietal and region you have. Chances are, if other wines from the same vintage and region are tasting well than so will yours. Wine Enthusiast Magazine even puts out a handy vintage chart that you probably have seen in your local wine shop. Pick one up or log on to their site and see for yourself.
When you decide to open your reds is up to you. However, make sure to treat them right. Many will not need long decanting like the young red wines often do. In fact, too much time in the decanter can literally let the life of the wine escape. You will be left with an off balanced and many times acidic tasting wine. This happens because whatever fruit was left in the bottle is quickly overpowered by the acids. The main reason to decant an older red wine is prevent sediment from getting into your glass. There are many videos on YouTube you can watch to learn proper technique. Be sure to look for a video of a Master Sommelier and not some rookie in his or her basement.
It is a good idea to stand the wine up a day or so before you decide to decant it. This will allow sediment to settle in the bottom of the bottle and make it easier to decant. Be mindful of the amount of oxygen you expose the wine to as you pour it into the decanter. If the wine is very old you will want to pour it in a manner that does not spread it out too far over the inner surface of the decanter. Again, the more surface area of the wine that is exposed to air, the faster it will “open up”. With the older eds this can be a bad thing.
Finally, do not be greedy! Trying to get that very last drop of liquid could cause you to pour sediment from the bottle. So go easy and save that last dribble for your sink.
Don’t forget, the amount of time you allow an older red wine to sit in the decanter is up to you. Just do your research to be sure you are well-informed to avoid a disappointing experience.