Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Collecting wine: patience and will power rewarded

You’ve probably read from time to time about the superb quality of this or that particular vintage in some part of the wine world.  In California, wine makers have had almost a decade of pretty good to excellent vintages, particularly for cabernet sauvignon. In Bordeaux, wine made in 2000 and 2005 have been hailed as the “greatest vintages” of the century (of course the century is less than a decade old now). And the silky wines made from Brunello Di Montalcino have also had a string of exceptional vintages recently. 

I’ve sampled some of the aforementioned wines and have concluded that, hyperbole aside, these are excellent vintages and you would be wise to purchase them - if you can afford them. Even in this troubled economy,  people will pay excessively for highly rated wines.

But where do you age these vinous gems if you don’t have a special, temperature controlled wine cellar or wine cabinet?

Finding an appropriate place to store your bottles requires paying attention to a few key details that will ensure your wines emerge from their Rip Van Winkle-like sleep mature and ready for you to enjoy. Since everyone knows that aging wine in a cool place is desirable, why not just store your bottles in the refrigerator?

Well, for wines you’ll be consuming in the short term – both red (particularly) and white – the refrigerator is fine as a short term storage alternative. However, for those wines you hope to age for several years, it is both impractical and ill advised to store that wine in the refrigerator.

Vibration from the refrigerator’s cooling system will disturb the wine and the low humidity will tend to dry out the corks.  Also, adolescents (and desperate adults) have been known to consume, absorb, sniff or otherwise ingest just about anything, including that special bottle you’ve been patiently aging.

If you have the luxury of a cellar (which is a fancy term for a basement), find an area where the cellar wall is below and adjacent to the earth. The reason:  the temperature below ground is generally constant and usually in the range of between 50 and 60 degrees F. which is approximately the ideal temperature for aging wine.

If you don’t have a cellar, use a closet or other dark place (like under a stairwell) where the wine is not exposed to natural or artificial light. Don’t store wine in the attic or any area where the wine will be exposed to high temperatures. You can use styrofoam or even wine boxes to create a stable temperature in the space.

The key with temperature is consistency. An area in which the temperature fluctuates five to seven degrees from summer to winter and does not exceed 70 degrees F is fine.  Wines stored in warmer environments will tend to mature more quickly and spoil easier.

Also make sure that the storage area is odor and vibration –free, and that there is adequate humidity in the space. Dry spaces tend to cause the corks to shrink and wine to evaporate.   Actually, humidity in the range of 60 to 70 percent is best for the wine, and you can artificially create this effect by keeping an open container of water around the stored wine.  Of course, you’ll need to age the wine on its side so that the cork stays moist. You may also use wine case boxes to store the stuff or you can purchase or build wine racks too.   

In addition to Bordeaux, Brunello and cabernet sauvignon, other notable wines that benefit from lengthily bottle aging are Burgundy (pinot noir), Barolo and Barbaresco from Italy, syrah-based wines such as those from the Rhone Valley in France and those produced in Australia (shiraz), and zinfandel. Sweet wines such as sauterne, late harvest rieslings and some chardonnay, particularly those produced from exceptional vintages in Burgundy, will also benefit from extended cellaring.
It is also a good idea to check out  the wine blogs, magazines and other periodicals for the latest reviews of the most highly rated vintages so you can determine how long to age your special wines.
I’m often asked if aging wine for a decade or more is worth the wait. The payoff – on that special occasion when you open that special bottle – is absolutely worth the wait. And while you’re waiting for the right time to uncork the bottle from that great vintage, there is a sea of wine to enjoy right now!
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