Joan Collins quipped, “Age is just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless of course you happen to be a bottle of wine.”
While it might be impolite to ask a lady her age, the question is important to any wine collector. In the United States, Napa cabernets are one of the most common wines to cellar, and oenophiles generally know the ins and outs of aging this popular varietal. But when it comes to aging the wines of Sonoma, there is a bit more mystery. Sonoma boasts the widest range of varietals and a multitude of micro-climates, making knowing how to age wines from California’s oldest wine region harder to generalize. Here we look at some of the age-worthy wines of Sonoma and how to cellar them to maximize their potential.
Humans have been storing and aging wine for centuries. The first known instances of aging wine date back 7,000 years to wine jugs unearthed in Iran. The Romans stored wine in the catacombs and the French in wine caves. Today, wine collectors have cellars, cabinets, and wine refrigerators to keep their favorite vintages.
The reason wine lovers resist popping the cork on a great bottle of wine immediately, is that wine is one of those rare things that can get better with age. However, not all wines made are age-worthy. In fact, today 95 percent of the wine on the market is meant to be drunk within two years of its vintage date. In general, the more expensive a wine is, the more likely it will have aging potential. The reason for this is that the more expensive wines tend to have the characteristics that allow a wine to improve with age.
Wine is alive. It’s evolving and changing while it is in a bottle. For age to improve a wine, it needs to have high tannins, high acidity, fresh fruit, and – most crucial – good balance. “There are so many factors that contribute to the ageability of a wine, but we find that balanced wines age best,” says Maggie Kruse, Head Winemaker at Jordan Vineyard & Winery. “We look to strike the perfect balance between acidity, tannin, and fruit intensity which lend themselves to a graceful aging process.”
With time, the chemical components in wine interact and ultimately change the aromas and flavor profile of a wine. In general, as a wine ages, its tannins will become softer, fruit flavors and aromas become more dried than fresh, and vegetal and earthy aromas and flavors may develop. The color will also change with red wines becoming lighter and white wines darker.
For a wine to age well it needs to be a good wine since birth. As they say, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” No amount of time will turn a Two-buck Chuck Cabernet into a Stag’s Leap Cabernet.
While Napa cabernets are famous for their aging potential, its neighbor to the west has ideal conditions to create a multitude of wines suited for aging. According to renowned winemaker Jesse Katz of Aperture Cellars it’s all thanks to Sonoma’s diversity of climate and soils.
“A key element in all of Sonoma is the massive diurnal swing,” shares Katz. “In my mind this gives the wine the best of both worlds. The warm days add richness and texture to the grape, while the cool nights slow down the ripening process and increase acidity which is critical for a wine to age well.”
Assuming the winery has planted its vineyards with the correct varietal for the soil and microclimate, Sonoma wines have tremendous ability to improve with age. According to Katz, the most ageable of all Sonoma wines are Bordeaux varietals, but Sonoma pinot noirs, zinfandels, and cabs can also be cellared. Thanks to the high acidity in its white wines, chardonnay from Sonoma also can benefit from time in the wine cellarIn general, the following aging guidelines can be applied to Sonoma wines:
Deciding to age a wine and for how long is more than just picking the right varietal. For each person, the amount of aging will vary because of personal preference.
“You have to know your palate,” says Katz. “For example, my Dad likes rich wine that is fruit forward so he prefers less age and decanting his wines. I like the tertiary notes and more mellow tannins that develop when you age longer.”
To learn your preferences, buy six bottles or a case of the same wine and drink it at different stages of the aging process. Not only does this help you learn what you love, it’s a hedge against the fear many oenophiles have of opening the wine at the “wrong” point in time.
Another key factor in choosing a wine to age is to trust the producer. If a winemaker is making wines that taste great now, they likely have varietals in their portfolio that will age well. If you’re at a Sonoma winery, don’t be afraid to ask directly how long the ideal cellaring time is. Even if you’re not, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call the winery or send an email. Any good producer will help you answer how long to cellar its wine, or whether a certain bottle is best to drink now. And according to Katz, they should ask about your palate preferences and factor that into their answer.
Regardless of what varietal you choose to age, storing it correctly is critical. Store the wine wrong and even the most ageable bottle of wine won’t age optimally. The ideal temperature for long term wine storage is 55 degrees with 70 percent humidity, whether storing red wines or white wines. If there is too much humidity there is a risk of mold developing on the cork, causing it to dry and crack. If the storage is too dry the wine could evaporate too fast, letting too much oxygen into the bottle. Temperature-controlled environments are the best route, in order to avoid fluctuations in temperature, which can lead to damaged wine. Additionally, storage needs to be in a dark place. Too much UV light causes the organic compounds in the wine to break down leaving the wine flavorless.
One of the joys of wine is that it is alive. The taste can change with different foods, and at different stages of its life. For oenophiles, the experience of aging wine is another layer of enjoying wine. The wines of Sonoma provide a wide range of varietals that are ideal for cellaring and make great additions to a wine collection.