Winemaking 101 Pt. 7 - Storage and Aging
I decided to hold off on posting until after the big primaries yesterday, so now it's time for a change of topic. Whether making your own wine or buying in bulk, you need to consider the needs of the wine if you're going to hold it for any significant length of time. And how long should you hold it?
For Winemaking 101 Pts. 1-6, see these previous posts.
A little reality check though, before we get started: The vast majority of wines on today's market are made to be drank without long-term aging, and a wine that is going to be consumed within a few months doesn't have any special storage requirements other than to be kept at a moderate temperature and out of direct sunlight. Heat and light are enemies of wine and even that case of Yellow Tail you bought on sale for $3.99/bottle is going to suffer if it's stored in an 80 degree closet.
But any wine that is going to be held for 6 months or more should be stored in a cool, dark place, and if sealed with natural corks, on it's side or upside down. This keeps colors and flavors fresh, corks moist and pliable, and provides an appropriate environment for wines that benefit from aging.
I'm fortunate in that I had a great space and the woodworking skills to build my own wine rack. This rack holds approximately 400 bottles (no, it's never been completely filled) and I set the angle for the display rows so that the wine still contacts the cork.
According to the experts, an optimal wine storage environment has a steady temperature of 55-60 degrees and 60-70% humidity. But don't worry if your storage area doesn't meet those specs, that's only necessary if you're holding wines for years at a time. The important thing is to avoid large or sudden swings of temperature, bright light, very dry air, and excess vibration. Wines that you are storing for a year or two will usually hold up fine under those conditions.
And how long should you store your wines? As I mentioned above, modern winemaking techniques have brought out flavors in wines that used to take years of aging, and most are released into the market when they are ready to drink. But high end red and some white wines benefit from long-term storage as volatile compounds in the wines evolve. Testing has shown that micro-oxygenization occurs as minute amounts of oxygen migrate through the closure and combine with elements in the wine. This is why cork has remained the mainstay for sealing age-worthy wines as it allows this slow process to occur.
Homemade wine benefits from from a period of bottle aging as the wine settles down from the bottling process and flavors meld. I like to give my fruit wines, which are made to be drank young, at least 6 months before I start popping corks. I've found that these wines peak after about a year, hold well for 2-3 years, then start to fade after 4-5 years. I hold back some bottles from each vintage to see how well they hold up with time. This is really the only way to know how long you should age wines, both homemade and purchased; by experience. You can read recommendations from the experts and they are useful as guidelines, but your milage may vary as your storage conditions may not be the same.
I'd like to touch on the topic of bottle closures at this point. I'm sure many, if not all of you have experienced the disappointment of a "corked" wine. Quality natural cork is getting harder to obtain as wine production around the world booms. Alternative closures are on the market and have ignited vigorous debate. For what it's worth, here's my 2 cents on this.
I close all of my wines with cork. I'm used to the material and process, the vast majority of the bottles I reuse require a cork, and I have yet to have a bottle spoil due to a bad seal. I'm not a fan of synthetic "corks" as many are made from a non-renewable resource, are often hard to remove, and offer no major advantages (other than the "pop") over screwtop closures. More winemakers including some high end producers are sealing with screwtops. Tests have shown these seal as well as corks, and better than synthetics. A recent oxygenation test showed that screwtops allowed the least amount of oxygen migration, and suprisingly, synthetics the most. Perhaps some enterprising marketer can come up with a screwtop that has a sound chip embedded to give you the appropriate "pop" when removed.
This is the final post in the Winemaking 101 series. I hope you've enjoyed reading them as much as I have writing them, and many thanks to Lambert for giving me this forum. I'll continue to add some occasional wine posts and will be starting some posts soon on another passion of mine; Gardening.