When you open a bottle of wine, how do you know whether you’re opening it at the right time in its lifecycle. Should you drink it now, or wait a few more years? Should you have opened it years ago? Does it matter when you open it, especially when most wines are consumed within days of purchase.
The answer is, it all depends. Every wine… every varietal… every vintage… is different. Some wines age superbly and need to be carefully cellared. Others are drink-now styles, where fresh is best and aging brings no benefit.
It’s a living thing
Wine is a living thing. When the winemaking process is complete, the yeast has finished fermentation and the wine is bottled, it still continues to develop and mature. This is because molecules and components of grapes, acidity, sugar and alcohol interact, evolve and integrate over time. Some wines become more mellow, better integrated and smoother after a few years (or in some cases, a few decades). Others will start to quickly fade away after just a short time in bottle.
A bottle made to be opened immediately (as most wines today are) will turn brown and lose its fruit character if you cellar it for years. The wines that age best have relatively high levels of tannins and acidity (king among them is Bordeaux wine, which enjoys a long aging curve).
The trick is getting to know the lifespan of different wine styles to get a better idea of when to drink, when to cellar, and when it really doesn’t matter either way. So let’s look at a few of the more popular wine styles Kiwis enjoy, and when they’re drinking at best.
Sparkling Wine and Champagne
Many Champagnes and Sparkling wines are designed to be enjoyed as soon as they’re released for sale. That’s because most Champagne will have already undergone years of maturation in cool, dark limestone cellars cut into the ground underneath the winery.
A simple rule of thumb is, open that bottle of Champagne or Sparkling as soon as you want to share it. If you wish, you can cellar high quality Sparkling for a few years – or for Champagne, even longer – when the wine will take on a richer, honeyed colour and nutty, toasty, grilled nut complexity on the palate. Aged Sparkling and Champagne is best enjoyed with food to help complement its complexity and depth.
Some Champagnes from a very good vintage can continue to improve for up to 20 years or more. However, inexpensive Non-Vintage Australian and New Zealand Sparkling made under the transfer method (that is, not Methode Traditionelle) are made for drinking now, not for cellaring.
Most New Zealand whites are consumed when young, and often on the day when they are bought.
White wines popular in New Zealand such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris are made in a fresh, fruit-forward style generally reward early consumption. If the wine is unoaked (which the vast majority of NZ Sav is), it is best enjoyed within the first two years after vintage to enjoy the vibrant fruit flavours at their best. Pinot Gris can drink well up to four years.
Other richer white wines can reward you a little time in the bottle. New Zealand Chardonnay, Viognier and sweet dessert wines can develop delightful characters of buttered toast, grilled cashew nuts, honey and baked bread with just a few years of extra bottle age. Generally, our Chardonnays peak between two and five years.
New Zealand’s best Rieslings drink well between three and six years (interestingly, because of their firm acid structure, good Riesling can age for decades: classic German Rieslings can still be good after 100 years!).
Although the majority of New Zealand and Australian reds released onto the market today are perfectly fine to be opened and enjoyed immediately, there are many benefits for cellaring reds that are a bit more expensive.
Aged red wines can tend to show an inky, iodine-like character that makes them fascinating to pair with food. For more complex, richer red wines, a little (or a lot) of cellaring can reveal new layers of complexity, smoothness and depth. The soft tannins and rounded, complex flavours will sing with food – and reward you for your patience.
New Zealand Reds
As a basic rule, reds will show fresher, fruit-driven flavours when young, developing savoury, earthy, leathery notes with age, which adds interest and complexity.
With lighter-bodied reds such as easy-drinking Merlot, Hawke’s Bay Syrah and lower-cost Pinot Noir, you don’t have to wait. In fact, too much time and you risk losing the vibrancy of the fresh fruit characters on the palate. These will reward you with good drinking up to five years (top examples, even longer).
New Zealand Bordeaux-style Cabernet and Cabernet/Merlot blends from Hawke’s Bay can produce wines that are exciting and approachable when enjoyed young. But very good examples are worth holding onto, as they acquire complexity with age. Some will drink well between two and five years, others eight or even 15 years. Premium examples from both Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island can cellar well for decades.
New Zealand Pinot Noir can now rival the best from France. Because our Pinot regions are small by world standards, emphasis is on quality, not quantity.
Most examples drink well between two and five years, top examples, five to seven years, with some still enjoyable as mature wines at eight to twelve years or even longer.
Barossa Shiraz can be so big and bold on release that it takes a few years of cellaring for the acidity, tannins and fruit flavours to settle down and behave.
Aussie Cabernet Sauvignon can often be so tannic in its youth it’s difficult to enjoy without getting that mouth-puckering sensation that leaves you with a dry mouth. This makes Australian Cabernet Sauvignon an ideal candidate for cellaring.
The Secret to Cellaring
The key thing is to ensure cellaring takes place in a cool, dark, quiet environment with consistent temperature and humidity levels. Any fluctuation in temperature or humidity can speed up the ageing process, pushing the wine past its best. Hot temperatures can ‘cook’ the wine. Also, don’t keep your wine under the stairs or on top of the fridge, as vibration disturbs sediment and agitates chemical reactions occurring in the wine.
It's worth noting most wines display the vintage year (except Non Vintage wines). Some will have a ‘drink now until…’ or ‘cellar now until’ recommendation on the bottle. Remember, always read the label, and take only as directed.