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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I’m slowly developing a wine collection, and we are trying to figure out how to know when we should drink our wines to optimize taste. When a wine says “Drink until 2016,” does that mean it will mature and get better until 2016? Does it fall off a cliff in 2016 and then go bad? Should we not drink it now and wait until 2015?

—Jeff L., Viroqua, Wis.

Dear Jeff,

Drink recommendations are reviewers’ good-faith advice about when they believe a wine will be drinking its best. Even though dates are used, they’re not meant to be interpreted rigorously, but as general guidelines, and it sounds like you realize that. In the scenario you’re describing, it’s not as if the wine will be tasty up until Dec. 31, 2015, and then the clock strikes midnight and suddenly it’s terrible.

Since you’re developing a wine collection, you should start figuring out what your own preferences are, and hopefully you will find our recommendations a helpful starting place. Generally, Wine Spectator reviews tend to be conservative, focusing on the time frame when we feel the wine will still retain some freshness and be expressive. Some wine lovers prefer more maturity with their wine, when fruit flavors evolve into notes of spice, tobacco and cedar. You need to figure out where your own personal tastes lie.

Will your wine get better and better until 2016? All we can say for certain is that it will get older. Wines don’t evolve in a simple trajectory—it’s not as if every day the wine is getting better and better until it reaches an expiration date. All wines get older, and depending on the wine (and on the person drinking the wine) that may or may not be a good thing. Wines can also taste like they’re at their peak for months or even years.

You may not want to put a lot of effort into aging wines until you’re certain you have a taste for older wines. If you’re used to drinking wines within a couple years of their release, a 10- or 20-year-old wine—even if drunk within the recommendation window of one of my colleagues—might not taste right to you. If you’re beginning to cellar wines to age, it also might be a good idea to make sure you have proper cellaring conditions before you do so. To maximize their aging potential, keep your wines away from light, heat, vibration and temperature fluctuation, in a steadily maintained 55 degrees F, 70 percent humidity environment.

—Dr. Vinny

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