How long can I store my wine for?
Despite what many people think the vast majority of wines do not get better with ageing and are intended for consumption within a couple of years. Cheaper varieties should be drunk by half a year. Reds last longer than whites on average but a sizeable minority are intended to be drunk early (Beaujolais Nouvea is an example of this). If champagne isn’t vintage it can improve significantly with 6 months of ageing from the time of purchase.
The more expensive wine is the better ageing potential it has in general. A young vintage claret at £15 will keep for 5 years or so (in the correct conditions – see below).
Ageing wine in appropriate conditions lets the flavours become more complex and in the case of reds blunts the sharpness of high tannic content. The very best wines will appreciate as they become harder to find. When ageing reds be aware that sediment can form (this can be solved through decanting which is explained below).
How should I store wine?
It is important to bear in mind that wine needs a secure, air-tight bottle to avoid spoiling. Rest your bottles on the side so the cork remains moist (this prevents shrinkage which lets air seep in). If you have bottles with screwcaps or plastic tops you can keep them upright. In regards to sparkling wine there is no consensus other than some experts saying they seem to age better upright.
Perfect wine-storage conditions consist of a steady cool temperature and high humidity with no bright lighting or vibrations. If the temperature goes up and down it can have a big impact on how the wine develops in the bottle – shoot for 10-13 Celsius. Bright light means ultra-violet rays age the wine prematurely. Low humidity means the cork is prone to contracting, which lets air in. Vibrations are an issue because they can disturb the sediment which ages the wine. Note that a slightly warmer but constant temperature is preferable to erratic swings from very warm to very cold. Should a wine freeze the cork will probably be pushed out which loses the wine.
Although a cellar is considered ideal most homes lack one. Even if you are fortunate enough to have one not all cellars provide good conditions for wine storage – if the temperature changes or its too damp you will run into problems. A cupboard or spare room are perfectly fine for wine storage but make sure there is no direct light, outside walls or central heating.
If you’re serious about your wine, especially in the long term, a specialised wine refrigerator will let you keep your wine in perfect conditions.
The decanting process is fairly precarious. Remove the bottle from the rack and leave it upright for a full twenty-four hours before opening. This ensures any sediment will accumulate on the bottom of the bottle. Once the foil is out of the way you’ll probably have to wipe the top of the bottle with a damp cloth. Uncork the bottle slowly and carefully so the sediment is not disturbed. Then fetch a light source of some description (a torch or table lamp is ideal) and hold it behind the neck of the bottle. Then pour the wine slowly into the decanter – stop once the sediment reaches the brink of the neck. For the last of the wine you can pour it through a clean cloth to avoid any sediment escaping. A decanter funnel can sometimes have a filter – especially useful for vintage ports which have a large amount of sediment. Port will not keep in the decanter forever – it will deteriorate like wine does. 7-10 days is the maximum threshold but extremely old specimens will last only a matter of hours! Don’t bother with a decanting cradle unless you wish to impress.
Decanting is not always beneficial, but it should be done with quality wines and vintage bottles of port aged in the bottle. Decanting allows you to leave unwanted lees (or sediment) in the bottle. It also aerates the wine rapidly before drinking. Quite a few punchy reds will become smoother with an hour in a decanter. Although it is rare for white wines to get any sort of benefit from decanting a certain number of full-bodied whites like a white burgundy can be quite harsh if drunk straight from the fridge.
When contending with very mature wines (20 years+) you should drink them immediately after decanting as their delicate nature means they will rapidly spoil when oxygenated.
Which temperature is best for serving wine?
For reds room temperate (18 Celsius or thereabouts) is generally best. Whites, rosés and sparkling wines should all be chilled after a few hours in the fridge. To chill the wine rapidly put it in a bucket filled with water and ice. Be advised that room temperature itself has changed a great deal with the advent of central heating – aim for 18 Celsius.
Smooth and lighter-bodied reds can benefit from being chilled. Try to chill inexpensive, unoaked and juicy wines such as Beaujolais. Dry sherries (e.g. Manzanilla, Fino and Sercial Madeira) are especially good chilled. With tannic reds try and serve them a bit warmer.
If you happen to have a cellar this is the best place to store your bottles temperature-wise. Reds will soon warm up and your whites won’t have been over-chilled in the fridge. A wine that is over-chilled has closed aromas and flavours.
Chilling sparkling wine:
Most wines only need a few hours in the fridge but if you need to hasten the process a bucket full of ice and water will do the trick – this will take about 20 minutes. Bare in mind that ice alone is far slower. If needs be you can invest in a chiller jacket especially made for sparkling wines which reduce the process down to 10 minutes. Don’t use a freezer as a neglected bottle will violently explode!
There are two main types of bottle closures – screwcaps and corks (both natural and plastic). It is uncertain which is better for a given type of wine, with each having its own virtues and drawbacks.
Plastic closures are often inflexible and tricky to take out and put back in, nor do they offer a very good seal – unsuitable for wines you intend to keep for more than a year. A wooden cork can taint the wine (referred to as a ‘corked’ bottle). Screwcaps are great for keeping the wine fresh and pure, most noticeably with aromatic wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Although often considered to be budget and inferior this is a misconception. The only negative is that it is unclear whether or not they are well suited for some variety of reds which need a lengthy aging process.
When opening a bottle of wine make sure your technique is up to scratch and that you invest in a quality corkscrew. An improper angle or suspect corkscrew can break the cork which causes all sorts of problems. If in doubt the Waiter’s Friend corkscrew has a glowing reputation. Remove the foil or capsule and twist the screw vertically down into the cork. Pull the cork up by using the lever against the neck of the bottle. In some cases it might be better to screw the cork up only two thirds of the way initially before pulling upwards and twisting it down all the way so the cork pops out. Don’t use butterfly corkscrews with a solid worm as these have notorious for damaging the cork. The best variety is screwpull corkscrews though these are costly. It isn’t essential but a decent foil cutter can save you a lot of time.
Don’t fret over tiny pieces of cork bobbing in the wine – it doesn’t mean the wine is corked. Just pluck them out and pour away a very small amount of wine.
A special consideration must be made for sparkling wine which has been chilled. Go gradually and with caution. You’ll find it opening chilled wine will be a lot easier so don’t be taken by surprise. It is tempting to shake the bottle and pop the cork like Grand Prix champions but this has a negative impact on the wine as you lose bubbles. You might also cause an accident.
Remove the muzzle but put pressure on it with your thumb simultaneously so that you aren’t taken by surprise. It might be advisable to keep the wire muzzle on top of the cork once loosened.
Make sure a glass is at hand and point the bottle away from yourself and anybody around you. Keep the bottle at an angle of 45 degrees before twisting the bottle itself whilst grasping the cork. Incrementally allow pressure to build up and push the cork so that it pops out with little more than a light hiss.
If it is an especially humid day keep your bottles away from direct sunlight. A decent sparkling wine stopper will leave your leftover bottles fizzy for at least a day – any more than this and you’ll find they become flat quite quickly.
Exactly what is ‘corked’ wine?
A corked bottle smells musty and has little fruitiness. It will also probably leave a lingering bitter taste in your mouth. Corked wine varies and some will find it unbearable whereas others don’t notice it at all in some cases. This makes labelling a bottle ‘corked’ or not difficult. Although it might not live up to its full potential you might not view it as faulty. Corking is the main reason flexible winemakers are turning to screwcaps – especially for susceptible aromatic white wines.
Remember that small pieces of cork debris bobbing in the wine do not mean the wine is corked. You might even notice mould between the capsule and cork but this is not cause for concern – just wipe it clean before uncorking!
TCA (trichloroanisole) is the chemical compound at fault. It slowly comes about if the cork is washed with chlorine, or if chlorine has been used as a cleaning agent at the winery. Only a few parts per trillion are necessary to cork the wine. This isn’t always the cause, however. Despite appearances the cork isn’t always the key player in ‘corking’ the wine – a musty stave in a barrel could be at fault. This is why even screwcapped and plastic tops are no guarantee that wine isn’t corked.
The frequency of corked wines is in doubt. Higher estimates put it at one in twelve bottles. Cheaper wines are more prone to corking due to lower grade and shorter corks, but even first-growth clarets are at risk.
Corking is a massive issue for the wine industry and scientific research is underway to alleviate the problem. Alternatives to chlorine bleaching corks are being slowly put in place but unfortunately ‘corking’ will remain with us for some time to come.
I have some wine left from a party – what shall I do with it?
A resealed half full bottle will remain perfectly drinkable for a couple of days and often you’ll find the wine actually improves due to exposure to oxygen. Always put left over wine in the fridge so it doesn’t oxidize too rapidly. A rubber valve stopper or vacuum pump will let you expel the air in the bottle. You could also make use of one of several patent devices which replace the air with inert gas. This will keep the wine fresh.
If you keep finding yourself with bottles of modest wine that are half empty you should consider 3 litre bag-in-box wines. These keep for a few weeks and you can conveniently pour out a glass whenever you so desire. Left over wine is also great for cooking (marinades, sauces or gravy)) – it is even possible to develop your own wine vinegar.
The majority of sediment in wine comes about naturally and is of no danger. In fact, it is a good indicator that fine wine has had enough ageing.
Reds can produce soupy sediment which plummets to the bottom in most cases but sometimes adheres to the side of the bottle. Reds and whites alike cause tartrate crystals – these can stick to the bottom of the cork. Don’t worry if you seem to find pieces of glass in your wine – they are aforementioned crystals. If you feel brave enough crunch a few – you’ll find they are tasteless and, more importantly, totally safe.
These days reasonably priced wines are filtered to prevent sediment forming in the first few years. This has caused some controversy as some experts believe that the filtering process has a negative impact on the complexity of the flavours. As a response to this some winemakers put ‘unfiltered’ on the label of their bottles as a mark of quality.
If you find sediment just decant the wine carefully. The wine is completely unaffected.
What are the main problems with wines and how can I spot them?
- Wine that has a strong vinegary taste: This is due to a build up of acetic acid caused by bacteria and yeast activity when exposed to air.
- Fizziness: Don’t be concerned with light bubbling when opening young wines as they are often bottled under CO2 to keep their freshness intact. This is especially prevalent with off-dry wines. If the fizziness is especially pronounced and shouldn’t be present then this suggests the wine has started the process of refermentation – a definite fault.
- Mousy taste: In most cases this is down to a particular yeast variety called brettanomyces. Some argue that in small amounts it adds a grounded and earthy feel to the wine.
- Cloudiness or haze: A wine that is either of these even after sediment has fallen is probably on the receiving end of yeast and bacterial growth (usually due to inappropriate filtration).
- Oxidisation: If wine receives too much exposure to oxygen the wine will be prone to smelling flat (like sherry does). They also often take on a brown hue before their time.
- Musty smell: This strongly hints that the wine is corked.
- Too much sulphur dioxide: SO2 is used to protect the wine from oxygen, but excess amounts can be highly unpleasant for asthma sufferers. Sensitivity varies from person to person. If the amount does not go above EU limits it isn’t technically faulted, but levels below can ruin the experience for many.
Biodynamic wines are controversial as they are produced using an almost spiritual approach that looks at the environment as well as lunar and cosmic rhythms. The Austrian Rudolf Steiner was put forward this technique at first.
According to biodynamic viticulture certain times of the day and year are taken to be beneficial to the growth of fruit, flowers, roots and leaves. Tiny concentrations of preparations are applied at the most opportune times in a fashion that is somewhat analogous to the practice of homeopathy. Examples include cow manure fermented in a cow horn which is then placed under the soil during winter before being applied.
Although the methodology is often doubted on scientific grounds many biodynamic wines are of superb quality, with most consumers believing biodynamism to be the key factor in improving the wines (in addition to being environmentally friendly). It has attracted support from notable figures such as Olivier Humbrecht, James Milton, Chapoutier, Domaine Leflaive and Nicolas Joly.
Which wines are appropriate for vegetarians and vegans?
The biggest difficulty is the use of processing aids. These are an array of fining agents which are used to stabilise and clarify the wine. If a wine has not been fined it isn’t as likely to be clear and it may produce a slight haze once bottled.
Some tannic wines are rendered less astringent by the process of fining. This is because some of the tannins are removed. The fining agent is a helping hand rather than an additive, so none of it should be present in the wine itself. There are no guarantees however and many vegetarians may take issue with the fact that the agents are used at all in the production of the wine.
Below you will find the most common fining agents:
- Albumin from egg white
- Casein from milk
- A specific clay called Bentonite
- Isinglass (protein obtained from fish bladders)
Of these Bentonite is not animal-derived and so safe for vegetarians and vegans. Isinglass and gelatin are both derived from animals and so unsuitable for both vegetarians and vegans. Albumin and Casein are by-products so vegetarians (but not vegans) can drink wine using these.
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