Common Questions in the Wine Trade: Part II
In Part II of this series, I address the storing, aging and serving of wines, and specifically touch on fortified wines such as Port and Madeira.
How long should I keep a bottle of port once opened?
This is probably one of the most commonly asked questions I have encountered in the wine retail business, and one which is also applicable to most other fortified wines such as Sherries and Madeiras. The main difference between a still wine and a port is the addition of brandy to arrest the fermentation process which increases the alcohol content and leaves a higher degree of residual sugar.
But ask yourself this, what is wine made from? You would have to answer grapes. Now what about port? Grapes again! So these are very similar products with port having on average an alcohol content of approximately 20%, whereas wine would average around 12-15% – now that is not a huge difference. The common misconception here is that port, once opened will remain good for several months or even years before it starts to spoil. Considering the evidence above, that seems unlikely. The higher alcohol does make a difference and will act as a preservative of sorts to keep the wine fresher for longer. However, I would strongly recommend consuming a port within one or two weeks maximum to retain its freshness and complex flavor profile.
How to store, age and serve wines:
I have grouped these last few questions together as they are very closely related and follow the very linear pattern of store, age, serve!
There are several factors which can adversely affect the quality of wine in both the short and long term: temperature, direct light (UV), vibrations, and humidity. Of these variables, temperature is by far the most important when storing wines. The ideal temperature is around 55 degrees, historically the temperature of French wine caves used for storage. It is very important to note that this temperature must remain constant; it would be irrelevant if your personal cellar was exactly 55 degrees but the wine found its way there after being cooked in a warehouse or on the back of a truck driving through the desert. A wine with heat damage will show signs of premature aging, becoming brick red or brown in color and will also have some sherry like properties – not necessarily a desirable quality in your fine Bordeaux collection.
Sunlight is another factor which can be detrimental to the quality of the wines and cause premature aging. It is very important to keep the wines out of direct sunlight as the UV rays will start to break down the complex molecules within. I would also like to note at this point that wines (especially age worthy reds) are more often bottled in green bottles rather than clear glass as this offers up more protection from the sun’s harmful rays.
Vibration can also be a problem by causing disruption to the sediment naturally occurring in the wine and potentially dislodge the seal of the cork. If you were thinking of aging your wines in the fridge, my best advice would be, don’t do it! Instead think about investing in a professional wine fridge which is specifically designed to eliminate vibrations.
Lastly, if you have a room or cellar dedicated to wine storage, a constant moderate humidity level would be advisable as some moisture in the air will help to prevent the cork from drying out. If you follow some of these general principles when storing your wines you should have many years of superb wine drinking experiences with a minimal amount of faulty bottles.
Once you have created the perfect environment for the storage of your wines, the next step is to identify which wines you want to age and more importantly for how long. For some helpful hints you can refer back to the information on the different types of closures and how this affects aging potential.
The question of whether a wine is age worthy has many variables and often has some very vague answers, for good reason. Some points to look for are the vintage (younger wines will often need more time to develop), tannic structure & body (this gives an indication of future complexity) and also the quality level of the wine (Grand Cru, classed growth Bordeaux and price etc – sadly higher priced wines do tend to have a better quality). The main problem is that wine is organic, and as such, no one knows how it will taste in ten or twenty years time. The best way to approach this is to buy a small quantity of the same bottle; four to six would be a good start. Drink one of these bottles now and see how it tastes; is it tannic? Does it feel closed or too acidic? If so it might need some aging. Now that you’ve tried it you still have a few left to try in a few years or even a decade from now and see how it develops.
Now for a quick look at serving wines. Most young, inexpensive wine should cause no problems as they are typically designed to be drunk young and are relatively fruit driven wines – assuming you have chosen the appropriate glass we talked about earlier. More care should be taken over older, more delicate wines or wines that are full bodied and flavorful but need a little time to ‘open up.’
Older wines that have not been filtered may leave heavy sediment in the bottle that will be disturbed if the bottle is shaken up. These wines will desire decanting to remove sediment and also allow the delicate flavor to become more prominent. I recommend consuming older wines on the day of opening as they will oxidize much quicker than younger wines and the flavor will dissipate sooner. Full bodied wines will also benefit from this process due to more air mixing with the wine to unlock fine flavor and hidden complexities.
Once you have the right wine picked out in the correct glasses and decanted when appropriate, make sure it is served at the correct temperature. White wines should be served at around 45 – 50 degrees, with heavier Chardonnays slightly warmer than light crisp whites. Red wines should be served slightly cooler than room temperature, approximately 60 degrees. This prevents too much of a bite from the alcohol content of the wine.
Now that some of those nagging questions have been answered (hopefully) and some light has been shed on some of those grey areas, you should be armed with some basic knowledge to navigate your way through the ins and outs of the wine trade. Coming out the other side with a good deal of confidence in one hand and a lovely glass of that delicious Bordeaux stored with care and affection in the other.
Christian B., Beltramo’s Wine Consultant