Most wine bottles are popped open within a day of purchase, and 95% of what we buy is consumed within a week.
And yet, I’d be willing to bet that we all have at least one bottle lurking in the depth of our wine cellar/back of the refrigerator/cardboard box in the corner that is long past its expiration date.
Often, these are special bottles – something a dear friend purchased to commemorate an anniversary, a bottle of vintage Champagne from a wedding, or a Bordeaux the giver insisted was “really special.”
Tony Johnston, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, has a name for this. “People are accidental sentimentalists,” he says. “They like the idea of purchasing a wine at a special occasion and enjoying it ‘later’…at a milestone event some time in the future.”
The problem is, the right future never seems to arrive. Or, when it does, there can be anxiety over whether or not to open it.
Johnston recalls a former student who received a case of French wine as a gift. The giver emphasized that this was “a very fine wine.” The man invited 20 people to a dinner party, promoting the fact that this excellent wine would be served.
At the last minute, the host decided to taste the wine before serving it. He thought it was terrible, so opened another bottle. It tasted the same. The man tried again, finally deciding, after trying 5 or 6 bottles, that the wine was spoiled. A backup wine was opened for his guests.
After the party, the man returned to the kitchen and began pouring all the wine down the drain, saving one bottle at the last minute for posterity.
Fast forward to Johnston’s wine class, when the student began to realize he may have made a mistake. He approached the professor, asking Johnston to help assess the bottle. “The next week,” Johnston says, “we opened the bottle and shared one of the best French wines I’ve ever tasted.” (Sadly, Johnston can’t remember the winery, though the flavors are still fresh in his mind!)
On the flip side, Gwendolyn Osborn of Wine.com recalls an email query from a customer wanting who had just uncovered a bottle of 20-year-old bottle of Coppola Diamond Label (which today retails for $15-20) and wanted to know if it was still good. (Um, no.)
There are lots of ways to avoid becoming an “accidental sentimentalist.”
First, don’t be too hard on yourself. Osborn notes that, unlike most grocery store products, wine doesn’t come with an expiration date posted on the label. As a general rule, though, most wine should be consumed within one to two years after it is purchased.
Second, consider the price of the wine. Osborn says “more expensive wines get more labor and care in the vineyards and cellar.” It costs winemakers a lot to be so attentive (perhaps hand-harvesting vs. machine, or using small oak barrels costing hundreds of dollars each instead of wood chips), so economics dictates that these wines will not only cost more but are also likely to have the structure to age.
In sum, Osborn notes, “Not every expensive wine has to age, but it’s a clue.”
These days, it’s also really easy to do a little research to get the winemaker’s or a
reviewer’s recommended drink window.
Sometimes that window can be distressingly large, or have been made several years before, when the wine was recently bottled. If that’s the case, look to consumer sites like CellarTracker or Vinfolio. These sites have tasting notes from people who have enjoyed the wine recently, giving a more current assessment of the wine’s drinkability.
If you have a cellar – or even a moderate sized wine refrigerator – it can be helpful to organize it by drink date, with certain bins or shelves dedicated to “drink now” wines with those needing age arranged from, say, “drink within 5 years” to “hold for 20+ years.”
Or take a page from Osborne’s book. She periodically goes through her father’s cellar and puts hang tags designating “drink” on the bottles he should consume in the next month or so.
But, you say, this bottle is special. It needs an occasion – not just to be popped open with yesterday’s leftovers.
Okay, fine. Then take this little nugget of advice, again from Osborn: “Make the bottle the special occasion and plan your evening around the wine.”
Heed this and you’ll never open a fine wine that’s gone to vinegar again.