It would be great if wine labels included information about how long the wine needed to age. That's not the way aging wine works, though. There are so many variables to take into consideration when allowing a bottle of wine to sit still for a few years — or a few decades — that putting that type of information on the label would be absolutely useless.
But aging wine — the right wine — is not useless. Some wines truly improve with time, and if you're thinking about starting to buy some bottles to put away, there are some things you need to take into consideration. First of all, the information here is for the beginner, someone who wants to start slow, not purchase several cases of First Growth Bordeaux or high end Oregon Pinot to put away as prestige or investment wines. It's for the person who says, "Hey, I liked that bottle of wine. I wonder what would happen if I bought a few more and put them away for a while?"
If that's you, there are two things you need to know before you buy the wines: How to know if a bottle is worth aging and what the storage conditions should be.
Which bottles are worth aging?
I have a small but growing collection of wine that I'm aging that I've been gathering for about three years now. I have some knowledge about what bottles will probably age well, but it's still helpful for me to talk to those with more experience than I have. I asked Lily Mirabelle Freedman of Acker Merral & Condit's The Wine Workshop in New York City for some advice.
"Most wines that we drink in the U.S. and even in Europe tend to be in two categories — wines that are meant to be everyday drinking wines and those that benefit, irregardless of price point, from a year, three, five, 10 or 20 of aging," she said.
"If you drink a wine in its youth and it has a lot of balance, on that balance, the wine can age," said Freedman.
In wine, balance means both a good amount of acidity and a fair amount of tannin, a compound in wine (and tea, dark chocolate and other foods) that dries out your mouth.
But, what if you're not familiar enough with how to detect acidity and tannin in a wine? What do you do then?
"Ask," said Freedman. "Reputable wine merchants will have good people in their wine stores."
She recommends asking to be pointed in the direction of quality wines from lesser producers in quality regions, benchmark regions that have endured for the most part because of their potential to produce both a wine that can be consumed immediately or several years down the road. When you're pointed to a specific wine, ask the person helping you if they find the wine to be balanced.
If you find a wine you like, Freedman recommends going back and buying three more bottles when you're first starting out.
"A lot of collectors buy in six or 12, but when you're limited in space or budget, three is a safe number," said Freedman.
"You'll be inclined to open one soon after you purchase them because you liked the wine," she said. "Try another one in about a year and the third one in two more years."
If you do this every month or so, buying three bottles of a wine that you enjoy, in a about a year you'll have a starter collection of wines that are aging. As you open each one in its time, you'll begin to understand what happens to wines as they age. You may also want to keep a notebook with your thoughts as you open each bottle so you can revisit the notes when you open the same wine in a year or more.
Storing wine long-term
If you're buying bottles you'll be drinking immediately or in a week or two, as long as you keep them out of extreme temperature variations, you can store the wines in any cool spot in your home. But, if you want to store your wines long-term, you'll need to be more deliberate.
"Ideally, you should store wine in a temperature-controlled designated area," Freedman said. A wine refrigerator — not your kitchen refrigerator, which is too cold — is best. If you don't have a wine refrigerator, find a dark, cool, not really dry (wines need some humidity) spot in your home, even if it's under your bed.
I'm fortunate that I have a basement in my home, and I keep my wine collection against an outside wall where it's coolest in the basement. I've also taken out the lightbulbs above that spot so when the basement lights are accidentally left on, the heat from the bulbs doesn't affect the wines. I also keep a small digital thermometer among the bottles to keep track of the temperature and the humidity. The temperature varies between 62 and 68 degrees throughout the year, which is on the high end of the safe zone for long-term wine storage. The humidity can be anywhere from 45 to 80 percent.
"Ideally, you want the wines around 55 degrees with high humidity," said Freedman. If you can't have it controlled, between 55 and 65 is acceptable. You don't want the wines to go above 70 degrees.
I asked Freedman to recommend a bottle, under $50, that she thinks is age worthy.
"Something I really like is Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage," she said. This Syrah from France runs about $40-45 depending on where you buy it, and is "classic, rustic and delicious in its youth." But, it has a fair amount of tannin so Freedman believes it can age somewhere between 10 to 15 years.
Me, I've been collecting quite a bit of East Coast cabernet franc from local producers in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. My educated guess is that these wines will continue to improve for at least five years from their release. While there are certain regions around the world that are known for wines that age, many regions in the United States, even if they aren't on the West Coast, produce some age-worthy wine. The way you find out which bottles you can put away from a local winery is the same way you find out which bottles from a reputable wine merchant are age worthy: just ask. Whenever I'm at a tasting — whether it's a professional wine tasting or at the tasting bar of a local winery — if I really like a wine, I'll ask, "How long do you think this will age?"