Log In / Join Now

When to Drink a Wine Can Be a Dilemma

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 22, 2007 12:34pm ET

One of our readers, Roger, just posted a good question in response to a recent blog. “When do you think is the earliest point to open a 2001 [Cabernet]?”

I think 2001s should drink well from now until they’re 15 or 20 years old, maybe longer, assuming they’re properly stored. But if you’re not sure, open your '01 now.

Roger’s question is an easy one to answer, because I’ve been fortunate enough to drink all kinds of wines from all over the world at all different ages. And most of the time I prefer my wines younger rather than older, because I enjoy the fruity exuberance of a young wine.

I also know that it’s hard to predict how well wines will age, so the longer you cellar a wine, the more the odds of it being as great as it was in its youth diminish. Put another way, I drink my wines young to avoid being disappointed.

To determine whether you like older wines, if you don't already know, find a friend or wine group that's willing to share their collection with you. You might be surprised by how many people would love to help you out. Or, buy a case of one wine and conduct your own experiment. Start by opening a bottle the day you get it, then try another bottle three to six months later, then a year later, two years later and so on. This will allow you to study how the wine evolves, and hopefully you’ll get a better sense of when you like your wines best.

Others might have better advice on how to approach this homework assignment. I invite you to share your thoughts by posting a response to today's blog.

Robert L Schmitt
Encinitas,CA USA —  March 22, 2007 2:30pm ET
Dear Mr. Laube,I had a dinner party the other evening and we served the following wines:2004 Wise Single Vineyard Australian Chardonnay2003 Rombauer Chardonnay2004 Vinnum South African Cabernet1989 Chat Mouton Rothschild2004 D'arenberg Dead ArmThe Mouton tasted like an old wine with hardly any fruit.The Dead Arm was too young.The Vinnum was delicious.The Rombauer was delicious.The Wise was just ok.You guys havent rated a Rombauer Chardonnay since the 90's and most of us know that it is one of the smoothest, most full-bodied aromatic and very tasty wines out there. Why do you not review their Chardonnay?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 22, 2007 3:10pm ET
Robert, nice to hear from someone from my old neighborhood. Thanx for the notes; my most recent reivew of Rombauer is its 2005 Chardonnay, which was excellent. While we try to review as many wines as possible, we can't.
Steve Barber
Clayton, CA. —  March 22, 2007 3:28pm ET
The Clef du vin does mimic ageing and helps to find the "sweet spot" with wine. I was fortunate enough to spend time with a Sommelier at Ledson winery. We tested a wine in two year increments up to 15 years. It definately changed the tannins, acidity and fruit. I brought it to the Sonoma barrel tasting last weekend and a couple winemakers said it took the "funk" off the barrel sample. The point becomes, some may find it helps chart when to drink a wine, based on your own pallet, hence placing the odds more in your favor. Can you imagine if a winery printed a oxidation reduction curve for each wine?....what a point of difference. Your thoughts on the concept? Mine is a blade on a Laguiole corkscrew.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 22, 2007 3:34pm ET
Steve, not familiar with it; may check it out.
Tom Breneman
eau claire, WI —  March 22, 2007 3:36pm ET
I attended the Chicago Wine Experience a couple years ago. The Ch. Margaux tasting ?82-2000? really helped me to understand aging of wine. I have put together a vertical of Barossa Valley and Elderton shiraz 95-2002 just for this reason. I need to get an idea if I like them young or older. I put the vertitcals together using local and internet sources. I'm hoping to get my wine group together so they too can go through this experience.
Jason Kadushin
Seattle, WA —  March 22, 2007 5:28pm ET
James - I generally agree with you but have two exceptions: Pinot and Southern French wines. Was wondering if there's any particular wine (type, varietal etc) that you prefer older vs. younger?
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  March 22, 2007 5:39pm ET
James, I know I told I would tell you about the blind tasting, but...the morning after I got a call and the restaurant decided to let me go. I have been a little upset since then as this was unexpected, but let me try to remember how I think the tasting went as I never looked at the results. Someone brought a '97 Merryvale Profile (I know that it was supposed to be '96 and before), and that one I think won. I think the 1991 Seavey came in 2nd with 1992 Souverain and 1994 Souverain in a close 3rd and 4th. Unfortunately I am not 100% of the results; if I do get a chance to figure them out I will let you know. By the way I gave the '84 Dunn about an 84, it was very tannic, but the fruit was lacking where the tannins should have given a little thorughway just as you said.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 22, 2007 5:42pm ET
Jason, I enjoy lots of old wines (when they're in good shape)...but I don't age mine very long. I drink my friends' stash of oldies...
La Quinta, CA —  March 22, 2007 6:10pm ET
Being in the trade, I have been fortunate enough to try many different young and old wines. What I have found is this: I like older Bordeaux and younger California Cabs. But obviously there are exceptions. I had a 1980 Montelena Estate out of a magnum that was just dynamite. I also had a 2002 Chateau Margaux that was excellent as well. For the most part it truly is a personal preferance. Dustin
Roy Piper
Napa, CA. —  March 22, 2007 7:31pm ET
I have heard so much about the....I think it is the 1968 Fay Cabernet. Apparently it inspired more than a few individuals to make their own wine, including John Kongsgaard and Warren Winarski. When did that wine peak out I wonder? Is this a wine that ever sees the light of day or is it all gone? It is on my wish list of wines to try someday.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 22, 2007 9:00pm ET
Roy, Nathan made homemade wine and indeed inspired many winemakers. I was fortunate to meet him and taste the '68 on several occasions. It was homemade, with a simple label that red Nat in one direction and Fay across it, like a cross -- the two names crossing with the "a." The wine was terrific. I suspect that one reason is that it was made right on the property, with simple methods -- a basket press and into neutral barrels -- and stored propertly in Nate and Nellie's cellar, never leaving the property. I doubt there's any left unless it's in a cellar of one of his friends. Dan Sogg wrote a fine profile of Nate, which you can find on our website, under story search.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  March 22, 2007 9:14pm ET
I am going to look at this in another way. How about cost. I am assuming we are talking about only red wines as whites should be consumed in the first 5 years (unless they are French White Burgundy or German Riesling...then 10-15). I am also assuming that all the reds are from the US or Americas. Here goes:

$0-$20 = drink in the first year

$21-$40 = drink in years 3-5

$41-$100 = drink in years 5-8

$101 and more = don't buy them, you are being ripped off.

Brent Rupnow
Valley Village, CA —  March 22, 2007 10:04pm ET
One always hears that the classic old world wines are 'built' for aging far more than new world wines ( even very expensive ones ). What exactly does this mean? I understand from my own experience that my Bordeaux are going to take a lot more time to enjoy than my California Cabs ( in general, of course ) but I don't understand what's going on in the vineyard and winery to make this happen. I routinely see far future drinking windows by WS tasters on the wines in the European beats and shorter windows in New World beats. I have never heard much comment about the mechanics of why the same grape in one place outlasts the same grape in another so dramatically ( Burgundy vs. California Pinot comes to mind ). This seems to be so despite the fact that all other things are equal ( quality level, price, and WS rating ). While I'm sure that terroir accounts for much of this disparity, how the wine is made must account for much as well. Can anyone shed some light on this mystery? Thanks.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  March 23, 2007 12:21am ET
Brent, I believe what you are seeing is the different styles in how the wines from the same grapes are made. There is something called micro-oxygenation that allows wines to be accessable at an earlier age. While I don't know the specifics...I do know that it has a lot to do with this one part. Another thing to think about is this. The dates that WS or "Bob" gives us are reccomendations only. Everyone has their idea of when a wine hits it's peak. A great example of this would be the 2001 Patricia Green Balcombe Block 1B I opened about a week ago. It is singing...and I love it. The fact that others might feel different is part of what makes wine so unique and exciting. Jason above gives you a dollar chart and how he ages his wines...while that may work for some...it most certainly doesn't work for the wines I buy. My $35-$40 bottle of Oregon Pinot needs at least two years before I will even THINK of opening it...and I usually hold out for 4-5 years if I only have a few bottles. Ok..I'm sure I've blabbered on long enough....
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  March 23, 2007 8:24am ET
In the several occasions I have done the vertical test (e.g. buy multiple bottles of one wine and drink overal a several year timeframe), I have always been disappointed by the "older" bottles. As a reference, all of these were new world red wines in the ~$15-35 price range and were properly cellared. Did my tastes change?? Maybe. However, I think this is indictative that these styles of wine do not improve (much? at all?) with significant bottle age (I would guestimate that most new world reds in this price range are best if drunk within 4-6 years from the vintage). My latest example is the 2001 Whispering Dove Napa Cab (4 bottles-- 2 in 2004, 1- 2005 and 1 a few weeks ago--the last was definately not as good as the first)
Brad Coelho
New York City —  March 23, 2007 9:40am ET
It may be disappointing to find an older wine you've waited on isn't up to snuff, but it's also terribly aggrivating when you pop a young Bordeaux too early and it's:wound inpenetrably tight,unevolved and backward to the T andcompletely closed and offering no hints at what breed it is.Granted, this doesn't happen to the same degree w/ young California Cabernet...but old world fans out there need to consider the alternative consequences of popping wine too young.
Mark Nickerson
Vallejo, CA —  March 23, 2007 12:39pm ET
James, I was recently entering my wine collection into my laptop with an OCR system and in the process thought I would enter as many wine descriptions/reviews as possible in the notes section. As I entered a few hundred bottles into the system, switching back and forth among several web sites collecting reviews, I was stunned by the variations, not only in scores and descriptions, but ageability. One reviewer would say that the wine had no real aging potential, another that the wine would benefit from several years aging and, occasionally, someone would say the wine was unapproachable at this point.I guess I was prepared for variation in opinion regarding style and quality, but was shocked by these clearly differing standards as to the ageability of wines. Your recent blog put a clearer focus on why that might be, but this particular variable seems like it should be the least volatile to me and it's really got me wondering about this difference between old and young wines and the differing preferences folks obviously have.Thanks for shedding a bit of light on a perplexing issue.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 23, 2007 12:50pm ET
Mark, assessing a wine's ageability is, to my mind, based on one's experience, and while I know some wines will age well, a lot depends on how they're stored. Also, I use short "drink windows" because wine reviews are more useful the day they're written than in years to come. I'd rather have someone who is new to wine open a bottle, rather than have them age it, only to find it didn't taste like the note indicated, or like it tasted early on in its life. Experienced wine drinkers probably find the drink windows less useful, since they already know how wines age.
James Wise
FL —  March 23, 2007 1:42pm ET
I understand that some ageable wines go through a 'closed' period, where they're not as compelling as they were in their youth or will be when older. What wines fall in this category, what causes this phenomenon, and is there a guide as to what years constitute the closed period (e.g., years 3-5, 5-10, 10-15)? I suppose - like with so many other things vinous - the answer depends on many variables.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  March 23, 2007 4:48pm ET
Like J. Laube, I typically like to drink my wines earlier rather than later, but sometimes you can be fooled. I purchased some '95 CH Beau Site St. Estephe several years ago (which I drank a lot--it being a good value for me at the time), but I left six bottles in my brother-in-law's cellar when I moved overseas. In Apr '03, I visited and opened one to taste. His immediate comment (and he is in the business) was ''You better drink this up now'' as it was good but seemed like it had not much left to offer. It was decanted, though, and about an hour later (after several other excellent wines) I went back to it and it had suddenly exploded with aroma and was totally fresh. A nice surpise to be sure--especially with five more still left to drink. - Jim
Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  March 24, 2007 5:51pm ET
Mr Laube got it exactly right. Experienced wine drinkers know what they like and look for in aged wines and wouldn't dream of evening opening a great bottle before it's time. Figuring out the exact time is however very tricky. When to open DRC, Lafite or the greatest wines is a challenge unless you are able to afford a case or two and "watch" it evolve to an ideal. As for the guy that rates and ages wines according to price and thinks over a $100 is a ripoff-- you may be right until you to have the right one someday and then all those less expensive ones your drinking turn out to be the real ripoffs of your limited wine drinking time on this earth.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  March 24, 2007 11:42pm ET
Wow Bernard...you are exactly the right person to go to the Anderson Conn Valley website and buy some Ghosthorse wine...trust me on this one. In the meantime, I think I'll do just fine with my $15-35/bottle budget...otherwise my wife would ensure that my wine drinking time on this Earth would be considerably shortened!!
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 25, 2007 4:26pm ET
I personally hold a fairly unpopular opinion that good single-vineyard Zinfandels are best when aged, specifically, Ravenswood's. In my limited experience, they have tremendous potential to mellow, shed their rambunctious tannins and develop wonderful bouquets and velvety fruit centers, even with lovely floral qualities in some cases. Without presuming to speak for him, I believe Joel Peterson also advocates this for many of his wines, and I have become a believer along with him. Even a few of their 1998 bottlings yeilded wonderful results in a year that was excluded from ageworthiness by so many.

If we start judging all wines based on tenets like "Cabernet is very ageable, but Zinfandel is not", or if we limit ourselves under the notion that "Zins are best enjoyed young", that to me is the danger of these overly-simplistic "rules of thumb" that we seem to cling to. To do so in some cases, like Ravenswood, is to miss what I consider to be the biggest payoff with some really underrated wines. To be sure, simulated aging and tasting repeatedly over time are the only ways to know for sure, as Mr. Laube points out.
Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  March 25, 2007 8:37pm ET
James,the red wines I drink with dinner range from 10-40 years of age and most are California Cabernet Sauvignon, fewer Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, and rare Petite Sirah, Charbonno. Some were expensive (Heitz Cellars, Ridge, Diamond Creek) while others inexpensive (Louis Martini, Charles Krug), most were purchased upon release, however, some have been purchased at Auctions (Butterfield, now Bonham). Except for the rare corked wine, most have been excellent, some stunning, and occasionally a wine of little interest. I am definitely one that enjoys older wines, however it should be noted I also enjoyed these wines at earlier points.
Cheryl Pearse
March 26, 2007 7:42pm ET
Regarding when to drink your 2001 CA Cabernets, I totally agree that the best way to know is to open some over time. It varies from vintage-to-vintage, and from wine-type to type. I've found that the 01 CA Cab's I've tried recently are unbalanced--have lost their fruity youth and are more tannic now, compared to a year ago when they were drinking well. I expect this is because of the year--2001 was more tannic for CA Cabs. I plan to hold the rest of mine for another 4-5 years before starting to open them again.Other years, like 1999, seemed to drink longer before going into their dumb phase. For example, a 1999 Darioush that was spectacular on Christmas of 2005, was dull a year later (I expect it will be phenomenal in another 5 years).I think 2002 was a more balanced year for CA Cabs and is drinking great now--and may drink well for another few years before needing to be held.In general, I seem to find that CA (and good WA) Cabernets have a young-peak at about 4-5 years of age, and then (if they are good) a second bigger peak at age 10-12. In between--they can sometimes be disappointing. (Although decanting a young wine can make a big difference.) The best way to know is to try the wine as you go, and trust your own tastes.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.