The Noble Writ: Better to Be Lucky Than Closed

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When to open a cellar-worthy bottle of wine? Unlike many wine-based anxieties, there is a real basis for concern about making this calculation with any accuracy. Determining when a bottle is "ready" presents an incredibly complex matrix of variables: grape variety, producer style, vintage, storage prior to purchase, storage after purchase, personal taste preferences and potential food matches (just to name a few).

After spending my early wine years pursuing perfection in this regard, I concluded that I really wasn't going to worry too much about it.

Spin the wheel and open that special wine. - TONI LOZANO, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Now, this isn't to say I recommend opening a bottle of First Growth Bordeaux from the most recent vintage the night you get it home. But the idea of opening a bottle at the "perfect" moment in its evolution is just another example of post-hoc self-congratulatory ego stroking by a certain subset of wine lovers. Many wine critics add fuel to this fire by providing drinking windows: "drink between 2025 and 2030" or "best after 2017." Such proclamations of dubious precision add to the unnecessary anxiety many wine drinkers feel.

The first point to remember is that virtually all modern wine is made in a manner that provides a large portion of its pleasure throughout its lifespan. Even wines that can be cellared are very often capable of being drunk young as the disadvantages of waiting to all but the most informed and patient wine consumers is obvious.

Certain varieties go through vicious cycles of being closed, lasting years, if not decades. When closed, a wine simply does not show much aromatically, and it tastes largely of its underlying acidic and tannic structure, rather than of its fruit and mineral flavors. Fortunately for most of us, these wines tend to be pricey, or at least somewhat rare, and even for the most notorious of these -- the nebbiolo of Barolo, the syrah of Côte-Rôtie, or the cabernets sauvignon and franc of left bank Bordeaux -- the trends toward vineyard and winemaking practices that help ameliorate these periods of closure are rampant (which isn't to say I think these are a good thing). So unless you've stumbled onto a traditionally-produced wine that is built to be aged for an extended period of time prior to pleasurable consumption, there is some built-in wiggle room.

Other wines can be whimsically (some would say frustratingly) closed for no apparent reason. My favorite example is a 2002 premier cru red Burgundy that I was cellaring. I opened a bottle to check in on it and found it in a gorgeous place: complex, lovely and compelling. Buoyed by this single data point, I toted a bottle to a tasting the following week.

The second bottle showed absolutely nothing but angry acidity and tannins. Same wine, purchased at the same store at the same time, resting next to the first bottle in the cellar, opened a week apart, yet providing utterly different drinking experiences. Why did this happen? I have absolutely no idea. It's possible that the second bottle suffered from a very low level of cork taint, or perhaps it was simply the wrong phase of the moon for '02 Burgundies. Regardless, these things do happen, and I was either lucky with the first bottle or unlucky with the second.

If you do encounter a closed wine, about the only thing you can do to try to open it up is decanting. If you're pressed for time, and the wine isn't old and therefore unlikely to contain much, if any, sediment, feel free to be vigorous in your decanting: Slosh it into the decanter, give that a few swirls, pour it back into the bottle and do it all again. However, I've had mixed success with decanting and think its benefits may be as much psychological as actual.

Finally, I know numerous people who (understandably) don't want to undertake the time, effort and expense to start cellaring wines, but nonetheless have a "special" bottle or three that they are keeping for some undetermined future celebration (or because someone with some wine knowledge told them it "needed time"). To these people, I heartily recommend opening these bottles at their earliest opportunity. This is particularly true if the bottles have been stored at room temperature and/or exposed to light on a regular basis. The odds of bottles treated like this getting better is remote, and they may already be well into their decline, though I hope you get lucky and find them to be lovely.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine every Tuesday.

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