Good storage helps you get the best out of your wine. Read on to find out more about which wines are suitable for ageing and the joys of laying wine down for the future, how The Society can help you to do this and top tips for optimum storage.
In this short video, head of buying Tim Sykes and wine buyer Joanna Locke MW discuss the benefits of laying down fine wines, from the changes that occur in bottle over time to the special moment when the cork is pulled.
Laying wine down – an introduction
'O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth' - John Keats.
A more prosaic reality is that nine out of ten bottles of wine bought are probably consumed within days of purchase. Perhaps the percentage is 95 out of 100. Nothing wrong with that. Most wines are designed to be enjoyed within a year or two of the vintage.
Wine is unique as a beverage, however, in that some bottles not only keep well for decades but become more desirable with age. Wine Society members include those who understand how to add to the enjoyment of wine drinking by planning such purchases in advance and in waiting until the right moment comes to broach a bottle.
Which wines age well?
To quote Michael Schuster in Essential Winetasting:
'The principal international red grape varieties which age successfully are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah/shiraz, nebbiolo, sangiovese and, to a lesser extent, pinot noir. White varieties would be riesling, chardonnay and Loire chenin blanc. Add to them the botrytised dessert wine (like Sauternes) and vintage port'
Other good keeping varieties include Italian aglianico, and the tannat of Madiran and the dry white semillons of Australia.
How does it happen?
Red grapes for keeping wines, with the exception of pinot noir, have naturally high concentration of phenols; anthocyanins (the colouring matter found just under the grapes' skins) and tannins (the mouth puckering dry ingredient found also in skins and pips and the wood in which wine is aged.)
These ingredients help keep the wine fresh, but during ageing tannins gradually soften (they 'polymerise' or form larger chemical entities) and the colour changes from bluish red via ruby, mahogany to finally becoming pale and brown.
More importantly, during the process the primary aromas of fresh fruit develop more complicated and persistent secondary and tertiary aromas. The bouquet and flavour of fine mature wine have many nuances and layers of complexity that make it worth the wait.
When is the right time?
This depends on the original quality of the wine (the potential of the vineyard); the vintage (lighter years mature more quickly); the storage (a dark place and a steady coolish temperature of 13ºC or so help; see below); and even the size of the bottle (half bottles age faster than full bottles or magnums).
The right age depends too on personal taste, whether you prefer the accent to be on primary fruit or you look for the added complexity that comes with age. We give recommended drinking dates beside all the wines we list that will improve with age and they all come direct from our temperature-controlled cellars.
How long to wait?
Cabernet-based wines can serve as examples for red and white Burgundy for white. A claret costing £6 to £8 from Bourg or Blaye say, is likely to be at its best after two to five years from the vintage. A good-quality cabernet from the south of France or Chile, such as Teisserenc's Cabernet de l'Arjolle or Marqués de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, will behave in the same way, though the greater richness and high alcoholic degree of new world wines makes them easier to drink almost immediately.
At the other end of the spectrum, a classed-growth or a good vintage may need ten years plus to reach its best and continue to improve for 20. Paul Draper's Ridge Monte Bello or Mas de Daumas Gassac from the south of France are two other examples that need ten years.
Most white Burgundies from Mâconnais and village wines from Chablis and the Côte d'Or under £15 a bottle are delicious six months after bottling, tasting floral and fruity.
Premier cru wines have the capacity to develop more interesting flavours than just fruit. After four or five years they change in style with tertiary aromas, reminiscent of honey, buttered toast and nutty complexity.
Our recommended drinking dates are based on buyers' long experience of tasting young wines and the advice and experience of the growers themselves.
One word of caution is that sometimes wines 'hibernate' for a few years. A claret may have an awkward 'teenage' period from eight to ten years old; a red Burgundy and some whites might 'go to sleep' from four to seven years old.
Why bother to wait?
As with other good things in life, pleasure may be enhanced by taking a little trouble and savouring the moment in advance. Discussing, selecting, anticipating a bottle before you drink it can simply be a sensible way of making the most of your purchase. It is part of the magic and fun.
Sebastian Payne MW
How to buy wine to lay down
En Primeur offers
The Society was one of the first to offer this service to members in the mid seventies. Wines are bought by The Society while still lying abroad, usually in cask, and are not liable for duty and VAT until shipped, usually two years after the vintage.
Strong worldwide demand for fine wines underlines the need to secure stocks when they become available. It is likely (though not guaranteed) that, as wine matures and stocks become rarer, prices also increase. The Society sends out regular offers of wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône and the Languedoc-Roussillon and, in exceptional years, Port.
Click here for more information on En Primeur Offers.
The Society's Fine Wine List
This supplementary list of wines is sent out regularly to those members who have purchased fine wines in the past two years. It is designed to help those looking for wines for special occasions or for short, medium or long-term cellaring. The selection is a diverse mix made up from gems that The Society's buyers have sourced from the world's best vineyards to be put aside for future listing. All wines are available on the website.
Visit the Fine Wine Hub area of the site.
Vintage Cellar Plan
This is a way of building up a cellar of wine for future enjoyment without having to individually select the wines yourself. You choose from a number of cellar options and The Society's buyers do the rest.
Click here for more information on our Vintage Cellar Plan service.
How to store wine
Good storage will help ensure you get the best out of your wine. Where possible, it is best to store bottles horizontally, at a stable, cool temperature, out of direct light and in an atmosphere which has some moisture in order to stop the corks drying out and exposing the wine to oxygen. The wine should be subject to as little movement as possible.
Bottles closed with natural cork should be stored on their sides. Bottles stoppered with screwcaps or synthetic 'corks' can be stored on their side or upright. Champagne bottles can be stored upright.
This can affect how quickly a wine matures. The recommended temperature for storage is around 10°C-13°C (50°F-55°F). Avoid storing wine where there are widely ranging daily temperatures.
Although a little humidity helps the cork, too much, whilst not detrimental to the wine itself, can damage cardboard and wooden boxes and labels.
The Society offers a number of storage solutions to offer members for laying down wine at home, from self-assembly wine racks to tailor-made traditional wine racks and Spiral Cellars.
Few of us are lucky enough to have ideal conditions at home for long-term cellaring but The Society's Members' Reserves is an area put aside exclusively for the storage of members' own wine purchased from The Society. Members pay £9.12 per case per year (or £7.92 for members paying by direct debit) inclusive of VAT and insurance at full replacement value to keep their wines in perfect conditions. A statement with updated information on ideal drink dates is sent out annually.
A Spiral Cellar is a water-tight, pre-cast system that can be sunk into the ground and located anywhere in the home, from kitchen to conservatory, workshop to study. The closest thing to a real cellar, this allows you to store up to 1,870 bottles in ideal conditions. Prices start at £9,200.