6 January 2016

When is a wine ready to drink?


We put my new Coravin to good use over the festive period. For those of you who don’t know what a Coravin is, it’s a wine device which is changing the way we appreciate and taste old wine. This small cylindrical ‘gun’ enables you to extract wine from a sealed bottle using a tiny medical grade needle. Once the needle is inserted through the cork, a blast of inert argon gas is squirted into the bottle and a measure of wine procured. The miniscule hole naturally seals itself up. Which means you can taste wine from all manner of bottles without depleting your cellar. We tried it on a range of wines we wanted to taste but didn’t necessarily want to drink until it was suggested we put it to use on a very old bottle dating back to 1898 that has been in our family’s possession for longer than I have been alive.

My great uncle was in the wine & spirits business on Arbermarle street in London and it is believed the bottle came from there. After inserting the needle and extracting the tea coloured liquid, to much fanfare, a first sniff revealed it was sadly, undrinkable. The overpowering, stomach churning aroma of old wood smelt like the inside of the sunken Tudor warship The Mary Rose. But it was a fascinating exercise and hats off to Coravin creator U.S. entrepreneur Greg Lambrecht for making it possible to peak inside this very old bottle.

It was a shame the liquid had turned, for wine can be unusually robust. A few years ago I had the good fortune to taste a Bordeaux dating back to 1893. Such was its colour and freshness when it was first served to me I thought it was from the 1970s. I later redeemed myself by deducing, correctly, that it was from Margaux. The wine in question was a bottle of Château Malescot St. Exupéry which had been immaculately stored.

Since then I have tasted wines from 1892, 1914, ’21,’43, ’45 and ’47 and have been struck by their good condition and complex taste and flavour. The most recent experience, a glass of Château Léoville Barton 1945 from Saint Julien, in Bordeaux, served in the boardroom of Berry Brothers & Rudd was remarkable. At first it was fairly closed and reserved, yet with time an astonishing aroma emerged of old Bordeaux. In short, it improved with every sip and that is what makes great wine great. By which I mean the wine is drinkable when it is first released but also possesses an ability to age and improve in the bottle and develop secondary and tertiary aromas and taste.

Of course not all wine will improve with age. I would say most wine, certainly more than 95% is produced to be drunk within 6 months of bottling. Furthermore there are a number of wines which although they will not turn to vinegar in the bottle will not improve either.

So how does one know when a wine has reached maturity –  that magical time when all the elements of the wine, the acidity, fruit and tannin come together to form an optimum ‘drinking window’?

Like most things with wine it is not an exact science but knowing what it going on inside the bottle will help you make an informed judgement as to when to pull the cork.

With time the bitter flavours in the wine will recede and soften. These are known as tannins and come from compounds found in the pips, skins and stems. The acidity will appear less astringent and the primary fruit flavours will evolve. So those immediate floral notes, fruit notes, spices and herbs will, through a complex relationship between the tannin compounds and the small amount of oxygen in the bottle evolve into notes of wood, cedar, tobacco, nuts and dried fruit, notably figs. A good place to start to understand the nature of tertiary aromas is with Champagne which, with age, produces a smell of yeast, brioche and hazlenuts.

So which wines age and when is the best time to pull the cork? As a quick thumbnail guide any fine wine (the definition of which could be a wine over £15 a bottle) will improve in the bottle with age. As a rough rule of thumb for red wines Chianti, Malbec, Merlot, Southern Rhône, Rioja will reach maturity between 5 and 10 years. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Burgundy, Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino will drink well between 10 and 20 years. Light wine such as Beaujolais and Dolcetto is best drunk within 2-3 years.

For white wine most Burgundys I would open between 5 and 10 years. If they are particularly good examples of Chablis then they will last longer. Vintage Champagne, good quality Riesling and Chenin Blanc will all improve for more than 10 years. Sweet wines, such as Sauternes in Bordeaux or late picked Rieslings and port will contain enough residual sugar to last for several decades.

Keeping up to date with wine merchant websites, wine journals and critics notes (like mine below) will give you a good secondary opinion of where the wine is in its cycle. My old adage used to be, if in doubt, pull the cork but now I’m not so sure. If you have a serious cellar I would recommend a Coravin, it also means an £80 wine can, like a good single malt whisky, be enjoyed over many months.

Three to Buy

2008 Pensées de Lafleur, Pomerol, Bordeaux, France 14.5%

This is the second wine of Pomerol’s family owned winery with a cult following – Chateau Lafleur. If you can buy it on release it’s a smart deal. Predominantly Merlot, the 2008 is slightly more reserved with a pleasing cool mouthfeel and top notes of dark fruit and wood.

2010 Le Soula Rouge, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, France 13%

Drinking superbly well at the moment with an attractive nose of dark fruit, damson and blackberry. Although it has that wild slightly herby smell of the scrubland of this part of France there is a soft texture which makes this effortlessly drinkable.

1989 Château Gruaud Larose, Saint Julien, Bordeaux 12.5%

One of the finest clarets I have tasted in the last 12 months. Firmly in its drinking window this has evolved notes of cedar and tobacco but there is also a thrilling purity of red, sweet fruit which runs through it. Very fine, this nonetheless has an earthy, savoury character which lovers of old school claret will enjoy.

Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015