Over many years of teaching and talking about wine certain subjects keep popping usually prefaced with the statement “You may think this is a stupid question but …”. Often the answer is simple but still requires more complex explanation.
In the next few instalments I will be posing some of the more common questions asked with detailed responses. I hope you will find them helpful and stimulating. Feel free to forward any other ‘burning’ wine-related questions to me.
“Why do we cellar wines and how long can they be cellared for?”
When I began my wine journey winemaking techniques were quite different to what they are today. It was generally expected that wines, reds in particular, would be kept in the cellar for several years before consumption. Now that 80% of wines are consumed within 48 hours of purchase winemaking has to reflect this demand – wines have become softer and more fruit-driven which makes for good drinking now, but not for cellaring.
Nevertheless most wines will still last for 2 or 3 years unopened, particularly under screwcap. When looking for wines to keep, and hopefully evolve in the cellar, structure and balance become far more important.
When explaining what I mean by structure I like to refer to what I call the FAT triangle – the Fruit, Acid and Tannin components that form the points of the triangle. And it should be an equilateral triangle where the components are in balance. If the tannin component dominates the other components in a young wine, it will always be tannin dominant no matter how long you cellar the wine,
Tannin is a natural preservative (antioxidant) in wines. Tannins are felt rather than tasted (that drying sensation on your gums and inner cheeks) and change character as the wine ages. They are derived from grape skins and seeds and from oak casks (if used). Wines age by a gentle process of oxidation and tannins control this rate of oxidation. Tannin molecules also polymerise (agglomerate) over time so the wine’s texture becomes silkier.
Many modern winemakers seem to be scared of acid in wine, worried that consumers will think them too ‘sour’ however given the general acceptance of high acid wines like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc suggests their market research is faulty. Acid not only provides backbone in the wine, but also aromatic lift and is a natural preservative. This is why high acid wines like Riesling and Hunter Semillon can evolve and survive for decades.
Even worse is the practice of adding tartaric acid to give the wine balance because the grapes were harvested when overripe, in the hope of accentuating fruit flavours. Whilst quite legal it does nothing for the wine’s mouthfeel – the acid seems harsh and often spritzy. Natural acidity is always more appealing – like the impact of rain on garden plants compared with watering.
The other main effect of ageing is the change in the wine’s taste where the primary fruit characters acquire an overlay of secondary flavours often described as ‘honey’ or ‘toast’ in whites and ‘earth’ or ‘leather’ in reds. How long this process takes will depend upon the grape variety, vintage and winemaking methods. With well-made wines allow 5 to 7 years for maturity.
Finally the closure will have an impact – most Australian wines now use screwcap which unlike cork doesn’t ‘breathe’. In general wine under screwcap will take twice as long to mature as wine under cork.