By Peg San Felippo
City & Shore Magazine
You’ve waited a long time to open that special bottle only to discover – at first sip – it’s way past its prime. Is there anything worse than regret you waited to open a wine?
I asked Eric Hemer, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine (one of only four MS/MW holders in the world), for his thoughts. Hemer, who’s also Senior VP of Wine Education and Corporate Administration for Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, offered these tips on storing and aging wine.
What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about wines?
When it comes to consuming wines with aging potential, most Americans drink their wines long before they are properly mature, not realizing how much more complex and interesting they will be with proper bottle development.
How perfect do storing conditions have to be to best preserve wines?
Not that perfect. The keys to proper storage are temperature, humidity and light. Ideally, the temperature for wine cellared for long term should be in the 55-60F range. However, if the temperature doesn’t fluctuate much, air-conditioned room temperature (68-75F) is OK. Humidity [also] can be an issue. Corks dry out when the air humidity is less than 60 percent. Closer to 70 percent is ideal, so it’s best to try to control it in the space you’re keeping it in. The other thing is light. You want to make sure that your wine is stored away from light. If you don’t have a cellar, a closet works fine.
What wines are meant to be consumed early?
The majority of wines produced are meant to be consumed within 1-2 years. Only fine wines are expected to improve with bottle age. For example, wines labeled with a more general area of origin – such as California, SE Australia, or Product of France, whether white, rosé, or red – are intended to be drunk young while vibrant, fresh and fruity. Most inexpensive wines lack the structure, intensity and complexity to positively develop in the bottle.
What about cellaring Champagne, especially if you still want it effervescent?
Basic NV Champagne is typically aged for two to three years before release, well beyond the minimum requirement of 15 months. Vintage Champagne even longer, four to 10 years, depending on the producer/vintage. So, depending on your personal taste, you may not need to cellar the wine long at all. If you prefer to cellar it and storage conditions are good, high quality sparkling wine retains its effervescence for decades. I’ve had several vintage Champagnes recently going back as far as 1996, and all were still very fresh, lively, and youthful. So, 20 to 25 years and counting.
What wines age well that people may not be aware of?
High quality Riesling. Many consumers are unaware that certain white wines, including high quality Burgundy, age very well. Riesling ages just as well if not better, in my opinion. Sweet or dry, the very high acidity and low pH retards oxidation and keeps the wine fresh. I have had dry Rieslings with more than 50 years of bottle age and sweeter wines much older that were still amazing and vibrant.
What was the oldest wine you’ve had that was still drinking perfectly?
A few memorable bottles come to mind, but a 1959 Château Mouton-Rothschild was particularly unforgettable. It was more than 50 years old when I experienced it, and the color, bouquet and flavor were still quite youthful. Deep ruby in color with just a bit of brick orange on the rim. Meaty, smoky and powerful on the nose, with a core of ripe black fruit, spice, tobacco and earth on the palate, framed by beautifully soft and ripe tannins and vibrant acidity. Highly complex, layered, long finish. Simply amazing.
How serious do people take wine vintages?
Sometimes very. I was once at a wine tasting with some retail customers who were one-upping each other on the rarest wines in their cellar. The wines kept getting better and better and finally, one said to the other: “I have a 1961 Mouton.” The other guy smirked and said: “Ha, I’ve got a 1959 Mouton. Top that!” I said: “I’ve got a 1945 Mouton,” and walked away. The look on their faces was priceless. To explain, a 1945 Mouton is one of the holiest of holy grails in the wine collecting world.
What should people keep in mind when they buy wine to cellar?
First and foremost, make sure the wine you intend to cellar is meant for cellaring and will improve in the bottle. And if possible, buy at least 3-6 bottles of each wine intended to age. That way, you can experience the wine at different levels of maturity as it evolves. And know when the optimal age for each wine is. There are plenty of written guides and cellar tracking software available today with this information. You don’t want to hold a bottle too long and then be disappointed if it is no longer enjoyable.
General guideline for aging wines:
Côtes du Rhône
White Côtes du Rhône
Late Harvest Riesling
Brunello di Montalcino
Peg San Felippo is a certified sommelier who has served as a judge in the annual American Fine Wine Competition, South Florida’s homegrown wine event, and THE Rosé Competition.
Photo: Eric Hemmer, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, courtesy of J. Gwen Berry