“Like a fine wine, I get better with age.” It’s an old adage that sounds nice, but we all know examples to the contrary. So how do you know if your wine is a Helen Mirren – one for whom the years only serve to undress her subtle beauty, grace, and style – or a Keith Richards – one that you wish had kept his clothes on? The key is that not all wines are “fine.” In fact most aren’t.
The truth is that 85-90% of wines produced worldwide are at their peak upon release and are meant to be drunk when you purchase them. As tastes are becoming more and more influence by a “new world” style of wine, that percentage is growing. Life is uncertain, and people want good wine now, not in 20 years when we’ll all be refugees in Antarctica. Yes, these non-fine wines can hang around for a year or two, and sometimes longer, but it’s not going to make them taste any better. And depending on how you store them, that extra time may actually make them taste worse.
So how do you know if you have a bottle from the other 10%, the kind that are designed to age? Here’s a good rule of thumb: if it’s under $20, go ahead and drink it . Those “fine” wines tend to be on the high end of the price scale. Here’s another adage: “Wine does improve with age. The older I get, the better I like it.”
It is commonly thought that the rule of temperature for serving wines is: red at room temperature, white chilled in the fridge. Though common, these guidelines are, without being too judgmental, wrong. The mistaken idea that red wine should be served at room temperature evolved out of the intended wisdom that red wine should be served at cellar* room temperature. Whereas we like to keep the temperature of rooms in which we actually spend time around 70 to 72 degrees F, cellars tend to be much cooler because they are insulated by the earth. And wine, when extracted from these underground caverns and served above ground in a dining room for example, will have a refreshingly cool sensation on your palate.
White wines, as well, are often served too cold. When you serve a white wine right out of the fridge, its flavors will be subdued and your palate will be slightly numbed by it… which is a great trick if you’re serving swill, but not if you want to enjoy a nice wine to it’s fullest. Whites too should be served right around cellar temp.
So how cold is cool? Technically speaking, somewhere between 55 and 65 degrees F – generally 55 to 60 for whites, 60 to 65 for reds. As a frame of reference, if you went to the beach right now and stuck your feet in the water you might let out a yelp… but ocean temp in Southern Cali right now is around 56 degrees F… perfect for a nice Sauvignon Blanc.
*For those of you from Los Angeles, a cellar is a room, or series of rooms, under the ground floor of a house. In other parts of the world these things are common and are also known as basements. Good places for storing wine, rat poison, and unwanted children.