We buy low priced Champagne in France and leave the bottles untouched for at least a year, if not several more. This modest laying down of wine works wonders with Champagne.
But, when celebrating something the other day, a bottle had slipped through the net and had become oxidised (loss of charm and a bit heavy, coarse). So the wine was turned into excellent Champagne cocktails (usually made with cheaper fizz) with the addition of sugar, Cognac, Angostura Bitters, and one drop only per glass of real vanilla essence – and ice.
So the subject of laying down wine surfaced.
Most wines nowadays are made to be drunk soon after being purchased. This means that they have been made quickly in stainless steel at minutely controlled temperatures, micro filtered and sulphured. Those with a high alcohol content will keep longer, but most might as well be drunk right away.
Wines that will improve by being laid down are distinguishable by their region (mainly Bordeaux and Burgundy in France), price (high), and cork.
Close inspection of the cork may tell you more about the wine than bottle shape, price or label. Wines that the producer considers to be worth ageing will use long (real) corks that will be branded with the maker’s name, château, and often date (classy white Burgundy is sometimes an exception, where unbranded corks and swapping can occur).
A bottle with a short cork, granular (agglomerated) or horrible plastic, will tell you that you might as well swill down the contents right away.
Laying down wines will have been made with longer contact between juice, pips and skins, rested in oak barrels, and barely filtered, if at all. This all costs money and people’s time – hence the cost. The reds will contain raw tannins that pucker the mouth.
So, for how long should you lay down these wines, and in what conditions?
The conditions do not matter a great deal – whatever you are told to the contrary. I have kept wine for years in many places and conditions, but have never allowed the temperature in which they have been kept to rise or fall quickly.
In February 1968 I imported a hogshead of Bilbainas Rioja from Spain and bottled its contents – 350 bottles when I lived in London’s dockland. It may already have had up to 4 years in cask. Cellar book comments that I made in ’69, ’70, ’73 and ’77 all note that the wine, delicious when bottled, improved splendidly. At 10 years in bottle it was as good a wine as first class claret. For its second 10 years it remained a good wine but faded away slowly.
In 1968 I bought 8 dozen Château Cantenac Brown 1959 from J. Lyons Wine Cellars at the Hop Exchange, London, where all bottles were returned to be cleaned, filled again, and labelled by a little old lady with glue paste and brush. (She also labelled cheap Hock with grand labels for royalty.)
The wine was the best I can ever recall having tasted. Tested for note-taking in ’68, ’70 and ’72, it was still wonderful and with years in hand. In 1979 (20 years old) it was “…still a good glass…” But in 1993 (32 years old), commenting on the very last bottle, it was “…way beyond its wonderful self, still smelling nice and with good initial taste, but a lost finish”. I added to the note: ”Farewell dear old friend”.
These wines were part of my wine learning curve, and before many of the modern style wines entered the market.
Serious laying down of wines has now mainly become a rich person’s game. But it is worth an experimental try by buying a few bottles of the same wine and making notes when consuming one of them each year.
I have seen Australian reds, and especially whites, improve with bottle age, but mainly before they started to ape the lighter wines of Europe. It would be well worth the experiment of keeping some full flavoured and alcohol-ridden wines from both new and old worlds.
I count myself most lucky to have lived through and been interested in this product of the grape in an age (certainly the 1960s) when good claret was still a modestly-priced, everyday wine.
The choice of wines presently available is huge and wonderful. There must be plenty that won’t break the bank and be worth testing over time.