When is a wine ready to be drunk?
That’s a good question I get asked a lot. I know quite a few people get nervous when buying wine that was made within the last couple of vintages. They think it’s too young to drink, and they’ll try to find something from an older vintage, something that’s been sitting in the bottle for five or six years. But when was the last time you saw mostly 2007 vintage wines on the shelf at the wine store? It’s all 2010-2012 currently (and soon we’ll see more 2013 vintage wines taking over).
I’ve seen people get upset over the youth of the entire selection. They want a wine with a lot of age, a wine that’s “open,” a wine that has had time to develop the secondary flavors that come through with years in the bottle.
But most wines these days are not meant to sit in a cellar or a wine fridge for years before they become drinkable. In fact, about 99% of the wines available for purchase today are meant to be drunk *tonight.*
Sure, there are high-end Bordeaux, Burgundy, German, Italian, and sometimes American wines that are meant to be set down for a couple years, but by and large, you’re going to be paying quite a hefty sum for these wines. If you’re spending less than four figures on a bottle of wine, it’s a safe bet that you could pop the cork on it tonight and it would absolutely be ready to drink.
If you have a wine fridge or a wine cellar, don’t stick the everyday wines in there. This is not a place you want to forget a bottle of Liberty School Sauvignon Blanc or Beringer White Zinfandel. Reserve those spots for your special occasion wines. In fact, unless you’re collecting serious amounts of special occasion bottles, don’t invest in a wine fridge. They’re too expensive and bulky for casual drinkers to find truly useful—they can run between $200 and $500 for a 12-bottle-capacity wine fridge that will take up valuable counter space. Instead, keep your everyday wines in a small wine rack and in the regular refrigerator. They’ll be just fine.
When you do choose to hold onto wine for a special occasion, keep it in a cool, dry, dark place. Garages and pantries and even clothes-closets are great for this. If the wine has a natural cork, keep the bottle on its side so the bottom of the cork stays wet and expanded, keeping the wine from oxidizing. If the bottle has a screw-cap or a synthetic cork, don’t age it—drink it!
Wineries age their wines in barrel and in bottle before releasing them to be sold. If the wine isn’t ready to drink, they don’t release it. So if you were able to purchase the wine at the retailer, you can bet that the wine is drinkable, and it’s up to you whether to save it or not. If you buy a wine to hold onto, that’s fine. Most wines will develop a small amount more if you lay them down for a couple months, but for almost every single wine, the difference will be unnoticeable. Drink them when *you* are ready.
For those who are vintage snobs, there is great news. I'm sure most of you have heard that 2012 was a fantastic year in California, and 2013 looks to be on par with (or in some regions, even better than) 2012. So what if those are young vintages? They're going to be incredible wines when you bring them home now, and a few of the Napa cabernet sauvignons should be incredibly ageworthy, too. I tasted a barrel sample of Conn Creek's 2012 single-vineyard cabernet, and was absolutely floored by how well it was already developing, even without its full aging process complete. So it'll be hard for me to hold onto those bottles long enough for the age to really affect the aromas and flavors. I want to drink them already!
So here’s a rule of thumb that I like to follow: the wine is ready to drink when you can no longer wait to drink it.