Things to Consider When Opening a Bottle or Reading a Review
I make a note at the end of each review on when I feel the wine will best be enjoyed, aka the Drinking Window. These are always a broad time estimate based on when I feel the wine will show at its best. One of the trends in today’s professional wine reviews is to widen drinking windows and thereby move-up the “start drinking date” to a much earlier period than I often feel comfortable with. This of course plays into the reality that most wine drinkers and restaurants don’t cellar their wine, thus making it easier to sell expensive bottles.
Fresh/newly released wines often take bottle age and/or cellaring to come together. While it’s true that fewer and fewer modern wine drinkers are cellaring their wine for the long term, I’m of the mindset that for age-worthy wines, cellaring can bring out the very finest. Not all wines are, of course, crafted to be aged. So, while my drinking windows generally start a bit later than most critics, and can extend for a longer time frame, please keep in mind that it varies from wine-to-wine, vintage-to-vintage. It’s all about personal taste. There is no right or wrong in the vinous world when it comes to your palate! Personal preferences rule the day but, suffice-it to say that I personally prefer properly aged/cellared wines if they’re structured and built for aging.
Oak Aging: A Blessing or a Curse?
A few words on the oak élevage (aging) of wine. While it is an age-old method for producing age-worthy wines, and for many wines to add the elements to the wine that the winemaker is looking for, not all oak is alike, or created equal. American oak is heavy with grainy tannin and a high vanilla component. French oak can be smooth and caressing with fine-grained tannins and soft, velvety vanilla aspect. Slavonian/Hungarian oak can be the most neutral of them all, with low tannin and low-to-nonexistent vanillin. Add to that the varied barrel/cask sizes and toasting levels the barrels can get, along with other wood types for aging vessels, and you have enough confusion that it takes an aerospace engineer to assess the impacts and influence of the oak on the wine.
And then of course there’s the variability that each grape type responds differently to each oak type. For example, in Rioja the indigenous grapes such as Tempranillo respond well to American oak, which has been historically used in Spain. In Burgundy, Oregon, and other Pinot Noir inclined regions, they marry nicely with new French oak. And in Italy, while Nebbiolo remains a highly transparent grape type, it doesn’t do as well with an excess of new French oak, yet does do exceptionally well with large format Slavonian oak (called Botti), or used French oak barrels, through which the impact of the oak is reduced by prior use.
While some wines are aged in one variety of oak and one size barrel, in today’s market many wines are aged in a combination of different sized and age barrels, of differing wood/material types, and with some of the juice aged for one period, while the balance might be aged for a longer period in differing size and wood/material type barrels/tanks. Élevage can even vary based on the vintage characteristics. I generally make some comments about the élevage in many of my reviews, but not all. By paying close attention, one can eventually begin to understand the different impact each has on the wine.
There are other types (species) of wood used, such as chestnut, but they are far less common. If they are in fact used, I’ll generally point that out.
Overall, my view on oak (and wood aging in general) is that it should always blend neatly into the overall package and never dominate the wine. If-and-when it does dominate, or convey a sense of imbalanced presence, I’ll comment about it in my review.
Other Types of Élevage Vessels
Oak is not the only vessel used for aging wine. Other vessels include:
- Stainless Steel – commonly used to create generally non-age worthy wine with a crisp, bright character. Stainless is also used for the fermentation phase of many wines.
- Cement – preformed cast concrete vessels, both rectangular and egg shaped are also used very commonly. Often these are epoxy lined to create a neutral again vessel that can easily be cleaned between uses and offer a long life. Cement eggs have become increasingly popular in recent years.
- Amphora – ceramic/clay vessels made in different sizes and shapes. Historically these were the first vessels used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. They’ve recently seen a resurgence in popularity, often with winemakers who are using little-to-no sulfur at time of bottling. A few examples of winemakers using Amphora are Beckman Estate in Oregon, Frank Cornelissen and COS in Sicily, Foradori in Alto Adige, and Felsina in Tuscany even uses them on one of their wines.
By wine definition decanting is gradually pouring from one vessel to another without disturbing sediment. But, it’s much more complicated than that. Decanting is one of the most common procedures prior to serving. It acheives two purposes: a) to oxygenate the wine prior to serving, thus allowing the wine to open-up/blossom, and b) to separate off sediment which accumulates in the bottle. Like oak aging, decanting and the introduction of oxygen into the wine can be either a blessing or a curse.
For young wines it is of particular popularity because it allows the wine to unwind and soften by introducing oxygen into the wine. Most sommeliers will entertain decanting your wine at a restaurant, especially younger bottles. Aeration devices (funnels that introduce air into the wine as you’re decanting) are particularly effective for young wines. I never use one, and especially not for older, mature wines, where the risk of over-oxygenating mature wines is high. Once you’ve over-oxygenated there’s no turning back. The wine will be flat and of little interest.
A few thoughts on decanting older/mature wine. Some wines (i.e. – grape varieties) handle the introduction of oxygen better than others. Depending on your views, mature Cabernet, Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir can handle oxygen well, improving the wines’ flavor and aromas while allowing the “bottle funk” to blow off. With other varieties the introduction of oxygen is more controversial.
I always err on the side of limiting decanting whenever possible. For older wines where sediment has developed over time, it is important for separating off the clean wine from the sediment. One method is to start by standing up the bottle a day-to-a-week in advance. That way the sediment can settle. My preference for older wine is to use either a narrow decanter (I have one decanter the diameter of a wine bottle), or a clean rinsed bottle works impressively well. You’ll need a funnel for either one.
Slow Oxygenation is a simple method which can be very effective for allowing mature wines to open-up without decanting. Simply pull the cork and allow the wine to breathe. I even use this technique on younger wines when I’m not going to drink the entire bottle in one evening. In my reviews I’ll use the term “SO” to signify Slow Oxygenation. I typically pull a cork in the morning, let the wine breath all day to slowly open-up, and then give it a brief decant just prior to serving in order to separate off the sediment, or just pour it directly from the bottle, reserving the sediment. This allows a perfectly clean pour. I am personally not a fan of cloudy, murky wine pours. When decanting mature wine always pour slowly, especially toward the end of the bottle as you approach the sediment. Nothing ruins a great bottle more than a cloudy, grit laced pour!
There Are No Great Wines, Only Great Bottles
Remember, while the experiences I’ve enjoyed with countless bottles may be great, even other worldly, you may have entirely juxtaposed experiences. If you line up six bottles of the identical wine, from the identical vintage, all perfectly stored and acquired from the same source at the same time, and have a glass of each lined up in front of you, each wine would taste slightly different and unique from the others. One might be corked, another more advanced and so on.
There are no great wines, per se, only great bottles.