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A Winemaker's Journal

TIME IN A BOTTLE

By Elias Fernandez

For reasons completely lost on me, New Years inspires a lot of talk of self-improvement. Otherwise reasonable people buy complicated Scandinavian exercise gear or sign up for language classes they’ll attend once. In the world of wine, the resolution I hear most often has to do with getting serious about cellaring wines.

If you’re making this promise to yourself, consider something first. You may be someone who genuinely prefers young wines. I read recently that 95 percent of all wine is uncorked in the year it’s released. Most Americans like their wines youthful – tannic and big, with fruit flavor that pops.

But perhaps you’ve tried a few older vintages and discovered you do love that transition wine makes from one-dimensional brawny fruit to complex subtleties of leather and cigar box.

My first taste of a classic, carefully cellared wine was almost life changing. While attending University of California – Davis, on Friday nights a group of friends in the winemaking program got together to taste the wines of the world. On one of these evenings, someone brought a bottle of a 1961 Burgundy. I can’t remember the name on the label, but I still vividly recall a moment of wow. The aromatic complexity, the softness, the beauty of it knocked me out. And for the first time, I realized that there was more to winemaking than growing grapes and getting your fermentation right.

This is the kind of Holy Grail moment that lovers of older wine live for. It’s why we have cellars or pay to store wines under controlled conditions of temperature and humidity.

If your News Years resolution is to start cellaring wine here are a few basics you may find helpful.

What happens to wine as it ages? If you periodically check an aging Cabernet under a microscope, over a period of years you’d see molecules of phenolics joining together to create ever-larger chains. Phenolics are the chemical group that makes up pigment (color) and tannins. Eventually these chains get so bulky they settle out of the liquid. At that point you no longer need a microscope. It’s sediment.

The wine takes on a lighter color and the mouthfeel grows softer. Also, the flavor profile changes. A one-note fruit bomb can flood your palate with complex flavors.

What wines should you age? Price isn’t a reliable guide for choosing which wines to lay down. The better option is to quiz someone at a local, reputable wine shop. They can listen to your preferences and steer you toward wineries that have a track record for producing age-worthy wines.

Should you purchase a temperature-controlled storage unit? Yes, unless you have access to a basement where temperatures are a consistent 55 - 58 degrees. (Sorry, your hall closet is not a good option for long-term aging.)

Ultimately, I think the best way to learn about aging wine is to buy a case or two of something you love. Drink a bottle every few years to enjoy how it changes. You can take notes, but believe me, the best ones are unforgettable.

 

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