Time In A Bottle. . . And on a Stove
Seriously, I never thought I'd say it, and it sounds cliché, but when you get a little older you do get a little wiser. Something I've learned with the passage of time is that ultimately most everything will change; life isn't static. Our preferences shift in many areas, and we age into a complex blend of interesting subtexts. Friends will move on, families will grow with births and shrink with deaths. That restaurant you love will take your favorite dish off the menu, or worse yet, close completely. While thoughts of change may fill you with melancholia, it's important to remember that change over time can produce amazing things in our lives, and this is nothing but true in relation to winemaking and cooking.
Great wines are a result of many time-dependent decisions made at points along the winemaking spectrum. Grapes need to be picked at just the right moment – that perfect blend of natural sugars and acids sets the stage for a good bottle. If grapes are picked too early, a resultant wine can be too acidic. If too late, the wine may be flabby and sweet, without enough acid to serve as a balance.
Fermentation is another stage where timing is critical. Before adding a dose of yeast to the juice or must, it needs to be treated gently so it doesn't experience what amounts to temperature shock when it is added to the cooler juice. It's a lot like adding egg yolks to a hollandaise sauce, but in reverse. In that case you have to temper the eggs by adding bits of the hot sauce to them until they are warmed up just enough so they don't scramble when added to the cooking mixture. With yeast, you have to add small bits from the tank of cooler juice to the warm yeast solution until the temperature is just right. This keeps the yeast happy and helps it to start a nice, healthy fermentation, which in turn must continue for a prescribed period in order to arrive at the desired color, tannic intensity and flavor profile for a specific wine.
Like a 27-year-old living at home with his parents, wine often needs time to make up its mind as to what it wants to be, or how it should realize its potential. And, like said 27-year-old, wine is loaded with chemical compounds. These compounds (e.g., aromatic esters, phenols, and acids) change over time, effecting transformation in the bottle. In the case of red wine, some extra time in barrels and bottles will usually produce good results. You can essentially compare young reds to teenagers, they can be wild, abrasive or overly harsh – both needing time to mellow out. Most reds aren't even released into the marketplace until they've aged for about two years. White wines, on the other hand, are ready for consumption sooner and typically hit the shelves after settling for a few weeks after bottling.
If you have pondered whether to hold on to some wines in order to see if they gain some charm, read on, but note the disclaimer that this is a generalization geared toward the millions of everyday, average consumers of wine, and of course there will be exceptions. Once wine is released for sale, more than 90% of it is ready for consumption. It is only a tiny percentage of wines that require long cellaring in optimal conditions to generate those sophisticated aromas and flavors obsessive oenophiles dream about. This elite group of wines, consumed by a fairly elite group of individuals, includes high end producers of red Bordeaux, red Burgundy, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Napa Cabs and vintage ports. In the realm of white wines, it's usually the highly acidic or those blessed with noble rot like grand cru Chablis, Sauternes, Hungarian Tokaji and Alsatian or German Rieslings. This group also includes certain barrel-fermented and aged Chardonnays.
These days even the bottles of the very finest wines listed above only need about an additional five years in storage, maybe 10 tops, before their peak has been reached and they start their gentle decline into fragile old age. Because winemaking techniques have improved so much over the years, the product going into the bottle is so good from the start, it doesn't need decades of bottle aging to become drinkable.
Of course there will be exceptions, and some wines may be glorious in 20 years, but they are few and far between. For most of what you and I buy, very little cellar time is needed. However, if you like the thought of stocking up, you do need to make sure you are storing in an appropriate location. The designated area should be as close to a constant temperature as possible, preferably 55-60 degrees and not too humid. If it's a bit warmer, that's probably ok, just keep it out of direct UV lighting, and don't expose your wine to extremes of temperature. Kitchen storage is a big no-no; heat and light are wine's enemies. The only time you should have wine in the kitchen is when you are drinking copious amounts of it or using it in a recipe.
If you are going to do some cooking with wine, remember that just as in winemaking, ample time is crucial for certain dishes to be at their best. In cuisine from around the world, many long-simmering dishes use wine as a major liquid ingredient. One of the most famous recipes of this kind is Julia Child's version of the classic French dish Boeuf Bourguignon. Julia's recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking has a gazillion steps, essentially relegating the cook to a full day in or around the kitchen. The result, however, is an epic beef stew, worthy of its reputation and every minute spent in preparation.
This dish was my mom's specialty of the house. She picked up Julia's groundbreaking cookbook in 1964, and I'm pretty sure "Bourguignon" was my first French word. Growing up in Southern California I remember those winter afternoons when I'd trudge back to the neighborhood after school, the 73-degree weather and our palm tree-lined street setting the seasonal mood. It was the days when I'd open the front door to the wafting bouquet of this particular delight simmering on the stove, that I was able to conceive of leaves changing color and what it actually might be like to wear a cozy winter coat. Once I'd make it to the back of the house, our groovy yellow and black kitchen would shock me back from my musings and I'd catch a glimpse of my mom's vinous addition to the stew; a half empty jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy; I knew it was be going to be a great dinner.
Now I've got that cookbook; its pages are spattered and stained from years of sauce and wine bubbling and sloshing around in the Le Creuset pot. I'm not sure how many times my mom made that recipe, but I do know it was the meal she prepared for the last family gathering before she died.
Whether it's fine wine, sumptuous food, or a fulfilling life, the more time and effort expended in preparation the more memorable the outcome. Remember that change over time is the rule, but like your favorite Cabernet, you'll soften and smooth over the years; you'll be less intense and able to accept life's twists and turns with aplomb. . . be sure to enjoy the journey.