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Ageing Wines: Sarah Knowles MW Answers Your Questions

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Expertise Expertise / 07 August 2019

When’s the best time to pop the cork? Buyer Sarah Knowles MW gives us some insider knowledge on the perfect time to open those special bottles.

You may have noticed that our wines come with 'drinking windows', which are estimated by the buyers. This is because we want you to be able to drink wines at their peak.

For many wines this window is only likely to be a couple of years (think New Zealand sauvignon blanc, for example) as they are made to enjoy 'on the fruit' in their youth. However, if it is a bottle of red Bordeaux (and especially if the price is a little higher), the buyer may suggest waiting a few years following production before pulling the cork. This will be because the wine will taste even better in a few years' time.

Why? Some young wines, particularly fine wines, can have such incredible concentration and firm tannin profile that young you may feel that you need a knife and fork! The wine won't be bad, and if you like a fuller body with plenty of fruit then this may well work for you, but we are merely suggesting that with a few years, or in some cases ten or more years, the wine might show more balance and complexity.

Recently we spoke with buyer Sarah Knowles MW about this fascinating subject, and she answered some of the questions members ask us.

Will my wine age well?

What happens if I open a wine too early?

Sarah: Don't panic! If you open a wine too early, it can still be enjoyable. As wine ages the tannins can soften and the fruit may develop more spice and complex notes, so a young red wine may still have firm tannins and more primary fruit flavours. I would suggest decanting it – a little bit of air can really go a long way in opening up the perfume. I would also pair it with a meal with plenty of protein – steak, cheese, beans etc – as the protein will alter the feel of the tannins when you drink it, softening them a little making the wine more balanced. However, don't make the mistake twice – if you open a fine wine to early, be sure to hide any remaining bottles at the back of your cellar, cupboard, bed so that you can see how it looks in another year or two! The process of tracking a wine through its ageing cycle can in itself be highly enjoyable.

What happens if I leave a wine to age for too long?

Sarah: Again, don't panic – I have long (often slightly tipsy) debates with friends about how old is too old…! Most are be fascinating to try, even if clearly the wines are not quite at their peak.

As wines age, the primary fruit flavours slowly change character showing more dried-fruit notes, as well as developing spice or vegetal characters like tobacco or mushroom. Therefore, if you stumble upon a bottle of wine in your collection that has a little too much dust on it that has passed its optimal drinking window, on opening it may be a little more vegetal than fruity. Over time, the risk of oxidation also increases, and so you may also notice flavours of sherry developing especially on older white wines which may divide opinions in the room. The tannins too will have softened, and if opened beyond its drinking prime, perhaps making the wine feel a little thin. The colour may also lose its bright hues, and red wines may show brown tints at the edges of the glass, or in a white wines case may now show a darker orangey gold core.

If this does happen, chalk it up to a wine learning, and you can always make a cracking gravy!

Will my wine age well?

How will I know when to open my wine?

Sarah: There are three pieces of advice that may help:

  1. Look at our drinking windows.
  2. As buyers we try the wines often and over multiple vintages, we really do want you to enjoy them and so we set drinking windows for exactly that.

  3. Learn your own taste.
  4. If you enjoy full-bodied, primary fruit flavours, then recognise that you might enjoy your fine wines a little earlier. However, if you like the smell of wet forest floor, mushroom and dried fruit then you may enjoy your wines a little older than most.

  5. Buy multiple bottles
  6. It can be a little sad when you save a bottle of fine wine for a special occasion to discover on opening that it was either a little young or old for your taste. To combat this, if you can, buy a few bottles of these special wines… then relax! Open one as it hits its drinking window to see how it's going, make a little estimate of your own about how vibrant the fruit is, how firm the tannins, and nominate another occasion to open a second bottle. This may seem a little geeky, but I can overestimate the pleasure of getting geeky about your wines!

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