It was a special bottle for a special occasion — a dinner for my daughter, who’s heading off to college in Canada. The wine was vintage 2000, her birth year. A wine that old is always a risky pick, especially considering my less-than-ideal cellar conditions. And this wasn’t an age-worthy red Bordeaux or a sturdy cabernet. It was a white, a California chardonnay, but one with a pedigree: Chateau Montelena, the Napa Valley chard that won the famous Paris Tasting in 1976.
I had a bottle of another, younger wine chilled just in case, but I needn’t have worried. The Montelena was gorgeous. Its color was vibrant, a pale straw yellow that barely showed any age. (White wines tend to turn dark with time.) It smelled of ginger and baked apples, and tasted of ripe pears, toasted hazelnuts and shaved coconut. Any rough edges from youth had melded seamlessly into a perfect blend of fruit and oak, achieving a maturity that still showed great potential, much like the beautiful young woman who watched the “over 50s” drink it.
The moral of the story: Don’t give up on those old bottles of wine. Here’s something I hear several times a year: An acquaintance has a special bottle of sentimental value, given to her years ago by a favorite relative or wine-loving friend. Or maybe she purchased it during a romantic fling in Europe. The bottle has followed her across the country, maybe even around the world, as she changed jobs and cities. It has been kept under beds, on top of refrigerators and spent some considerable time forgotten in the back of a linen closet. Every time she finds it, she is reminded of her long-ago benefactor or lover and the good times they shared. But she’s reluctant to open it and drink the wine; no occasion seems special enough, or she doesn’t feel comfortable since, after all, she doesn’t consider herself “expert” enough about wine to appreciate it.
These anecdotes invariably end with the same question: “Is it still any good?”
That depends, I say, and ask to see a photo of the bottle. The first and most important clues, of course, are the producer, region and vintage. But I also look for the ullage, the space between the cork and the wine. If it is large (more than the standard quarter inch or so), the wine has probably oxidized, evaporated or seeped out through the cork. I also look for signs of leakage, such as drips on the foil capsule or the label. These suggest the wine was stored improperly and exposed to heat. If none of those negative indicators are visible, the wine may still be over the hill. There’s only one way to find out.
Wine collectors are a funny breed. We take great pleasure in deferred gratification as we watch our wines age for years before pronouncing them ready to drink. Often we wait too long. But our cellars are status symbols, the bottles arrayed on their sides, so the wine touches the cork, keeping it from drying out and shrinking. Temperature is also important: Wine ages best at 55 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, so we invest in expensive wine vaults or chillers.
Fifteen years ago, when a house fire gave me the opportunity to renovate my basement, I decided to construct an enclosed wine cellar in one corner. I designed it to accommodate the smallest, least-expensive cooling unit. After about six months, the cooling unit died and leaked water all over the floor. Several months later, the replacement unit died, too. By this time, my collection had already outgrown the cellar’s capacity and spilled into the basement, so I decided to leave the door open and turn the thermostat down as low as we could stand it. (“It’s good for the wine, honey, just put on a sweater!”) It may not be the “ideal temperature,” but the only time I really worry about heat spikes and fluctuations is shoulder season, when we open the windows and enjoy fresh air.
Which is to say, don’t sweat the details about storing your wine. If you maintain a few cases of inventory, a wine refrigerator (sold at houseware stores) is ideal, but unless you are building a collection as an investment, you don’t need expensive wine racks or temperature controls. Just keep your wine in the coolest part of your house.
And if you are worried that special bottle you’ve been reluctant to open may have turned to vinegar, what are you waiting for? Gather some friends, share the story and drink the wine. It may indeed be as special as the memories.
But have a backup wine handy, just in case.