How and What to Cellar?
You've probably heard people in the wine industry say that they are 'cellaring' or 'aging' wines, but what exactly does that mean? Is that something everyone should be doing? Is every wine worthy of going into the cellar? Can a wine ever go bad? Can it be too old? Hopefully we'll be able to dive into this incredibly complex conversation, give some general rules of thumb, and learn something.
What does cellaring mean?
Cellaring, or aging wine is allowing the wine to further develop in the bottle for an extended period of time. While most wines, especially those found in the LCBO are designed to be drank young, typically within a year of purchasing, there are a few wines (check the vintages) that will be better suited for the long haul. I wish there was a hard and fast rule to say that wines x, y, and z will age for 20+ years, but wines a. b. and c are ready to drink now. Unfortunately wine doesn't really follow rules, as every one will experience the wine in a different way, enjoy the wine in a different way, and want to enjoy the wine how they want to enjoy it. We'll be looking at specifically Ontario wines, but the information can be extrapolated to other wine regions as well.
Vintage is one of the first things to look for on a bottle of wine when considering it for the cellar. While even in bad vintages there can be some fantastic wines being produced, the best vintages (2010, 2012, 2016, 2020 for Ontario) will lend themselves exceptionally well to cellaring, and are a great place to start.
Grape varietal is probably even more important than the vintage itself. Certain varieties lend themselves better to aging than others. Something like Muscat/Moscato, Pinot Grigio, and Vidal Blanc (table wine, not Icewine) typically don't gain anything from aging. These bright and aromatic white grapes are released young, and intended to drink young. Not to say it isn't possible, but its not an easy place to start when beginning to put a cellar together. Something like Riesling, or some Chardonnays excel at aging, due to characteristics we'll talk about in a bit. For red wine, Gamay Noir typically wont gain anything from aging, as the beautiful fruit character that we all know and love in Gamay diminishes quickly the longer you let it sit. This is where Cabernet Sauvignon, big Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, and any other Bordeaux varieties typically are at their best further down the line.
Body and Wine Style
Let says we're at a reputable winery, with a bottle of of 2016 Cabernet Franc, and are wondering if this is the wine destined for the cellar? Try the wine. Is the wine balanced? Is the wine overly tannic? Is the wine light and falling short on your pallet? A wine, whether drinking right away, or storing it for an extended period of time, needs to be balanced. Overly tannic, overly sweet, overly acidic, or any other component of the wine will just get blown out of proportion with time in a cellar. While yes, we do want higher levels of acidity, tannin, alcohol, and sugar for the perfect bottle, no component can be out of place. A wine may feel tight, grippy, and a bit tough to drink, and those are incredible signs of an age worthy wine. When planning on aging a wine for extended periods of time, try purchasing 6 bottles, or a case, and slowly open them every year or so to see how they develop over time. This way, when the wine is at its peak, or just beginning to fall off, you wont be stuck with a full case, and wont be wasting a bunch of valuable wine if it goes too far. And yes, wine can go too far.
Icewine is also something that evolves beautifully with age, and are some of the easiest wines to age for the long term. While vintages are not the most important thing when it comes to Icewine, nor is grape variety (Vidal Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine both age beautifully, in their own different ways). Unbalanced Icewines will still remain unbalanced through aging, even after 20 years in bottle. Again, look for reputable wineries producing high quality Icewine, and talk to the staff. They are the experts on their products, and will be the best way to get information on the products ability to age.
So you just found the perfect wine, you bought a case, and want to see the wine develop over the next decade. Now what? The most important part of aging wine at home is to keep things as constant as possible. Constant cool temperature, around 8-15C, with the closer to 12C being the most ideal. That means that the ever so popular built-in wine racks in custom kitchens are actually doing more harm than good, as the kitchen is typically the hottest part of the house. Too cold and corks could pop out of the bottle or dry out the cork if being stored in the refrigerator for several months. We're trying to avoid sunlight, but to be the safest, try to have them in a consistent dark place, and only turn on the lights for a short period of time. Humidity is also critical, especially for wines with natural corks, as too high of humidity will promote rot or mold, and too low of humidity will dry out the cork, allowing oxygen to enter the bottle, oxidizing the wine in a way that we are trying to avoid. Bottles should be stored on their sides, to keep the wine up against the cork, protecting it from drying out. Lastly, You want to avoid storing your wines where they may experience a bunch of vibrations.
I told you this is a complicated concept in the world of wine. There is no rules to follow, and at the end of the day, it is sometimes all about luck, and experience with aging wines. A novice drinker may not be able to tell the difference between a bottle of wine that needs more time to reach its peak versus a bottle that is ready to drink today. But don't let that scare you. Enjoy the wine however you want to enjoy it, have fun with it, and you might just be fortunate enough to land on a winner.