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Time Is Not on Your Side

August 24, 1995|DAN BERGER

Old wine is revered in poem and anecdote, myth and song, and I don't ignore a chance to try mature wines at the plummet of a Panama.

Still, I drink most wine a lot younger than the books say you should. I like fruit, and I'm willing to put up with the minor annoyance of some gritty tannins in red wines to assure myself that I'm getting my fair share of Mother Nature's handiwork, the grape, and not too much of Father Time's ravages.

As for white wines, I stopped aging them long ago when I realized that the Chardonnays I was stashing were, a decade later, really sherry.

Recently, however, I tasted a wine that really did get better with age. It was quite mature and had a complex cedar and spice herbal aroma, clearly Cabernet but with loads of fruit remaining and a rich, sweet finish. The wine was 1982 Claret from Penfolds, predecessor of today's Koonunga Hill, a fine Australian red that is selling for no more than $8. (The 1992 vintage of Koonunga Hill, now on shelves, is an excellent value.)

How did the Penfolds age that well? My answer is that it's all in how you keep the wine. Unless you have ideal storage conditions, don't even consider aging your wine. More than likely, you'll be disappointed.

Wine collectors speak of great wines as if every bottle from a particular vintage and producer were exactly the same. Yet we all know that a badly stored bottle of wine, even the greatest wine, can offer no charm. As the saying goes, there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine.

Good storage of wine (cool, constant temperatures, free of light and vibration) is essential to protect the nuances in good wine and make all the bottles taste about the same at the same time.

But many things beyond good storage work against a wine always tasting the same, bottle after bottle. Here are a few:

* Short-term high temperatures. A good wine stored cool for a decade and then subjected to three days of 85-degree heat will be less lively and fruity than a wine pulled directly from the cool conditions and served.

* Light. I've written about light-struck wine before. It's more of a problem with white wines, especially those in clear glass bottles. But red wine can be harmed by ultraviolet rays too, if exposed to that sort of light for even short periods.

* Bad corks. About 2% of all wines smell bad because of musty corks; they are infected with a chemical that, curiously, comes from the bleach used to sterilize them. Also, some off-odors in wine can be caused by corks that simply do not fit well in the bottle and do a poor job of keeping air out. Oxygen can kill a good wine too.

* Bottle variation. One bottle of a certain wine may be great and, for reasons even scientists can't determine, another from the same case can taste odd.

* Time. A wine that tastes great one day can simply fall apart a few months later. Again, science has no answer for this rapid decline.

But even perfect cellaring conditions are next to impossible to achieve. No wine cellar offers perfect storage conditions for all wines.

That's because wines differ and require different aging conditions. For instance, someone who buys an excellent 1992 vintage Port will be told that the wine needs 30 years of cellaring before it becomes drinkable.

Now, if that same person has a wine cellar cooled to a constant 48 degrees, he might as well add another decade or two to that. That's because all chemical reactions, like wine aging, slow down markedly as the temperature drops.

If you are 50 years old and buy '92 Ports intending to consume them yourself, perhaps they should be stored at 68 degrees, not 48, so they will age a bit faster and you won't have to leave them to your grandchildren.

Also, fragile old wines should be stored at cooler-than-average temperatures. This is especially true for white wines, like old white Burgundies. Here, the 48-degree cellar would be perfect.

Red wines of different concentrations and made by different production methods likewise should be held at different temperatures. If you like really old Bordeaux wines--say, 30 or 40 years old--you should store them colder. At warmer temperatures, they'll be ready to drink a lot sooner, though with less character.

Just about once a week I get a letter or call from someone who says: "I have a bottle of 1937 Cha^teau Poopoux and I want to sell it. How much is it worth?"

In such cases, I rarely inquire into the storage conditions of the wine. My usual answer: "It's worth whatever you can sell it for, but I'd suggest you drink it." Few collectors, and no merchants, will buy a wine unless they're positive that it has been stored well.

Disposing of older wine is a chore, mainly because most older wine is simply older, not better. There is almost no market for single bottles of old wine; the best one can hope for is that the wine will be drinkable when opened. Rein in your expectations of flavor nirvana and especially forget the prospect of wealth.

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