Good Life

Drink-by date depends on wine’s maturity

How long should you wait to drink a wine? Before we consider this, let’s review the life of a man. He is conceived and amazing changes occur in the fetus. Eyes, ears, legs, arms and a brain grow. He is born and the changes continue throughout childhood as he ages.

At about 18, he matures. There are relatively few changes for a while, so long as he does not abuse himself, have a bad accident or contract a terrible disease. At about his allotted time — the Bible says three score and 10 — his critical life functions start to shut down and he eventually dies.Now let’s look at a big California red, say a Clos du Bois Alexander Valley Reserve Cabernet, sold for $20, or a William Hill Napa Merlot for $20. The grape flowers are pollinated and amazing changes occur. The berries set, and, after veraison, they swell, change color and become sweet. The grapes are picked and the must be fermented — the wine is born.

The changes continue through the wine’s “childhood” as it ages. Mainly the rough tannins agglomerate and smooth out. The larger, smoother tannins combine into molecules too large to stay in suspension, and they and the red pigments fall to the bottom of the bottle. At about three to five years, depending on the grape and vinification techniques, the wine is mature.

There are relatively few (and unimportant) changes for a while, so long as the wine is not accidentally abused — exposed to the air or sunlight, or heated to 80 degrees or above — and so long as it does not contract some terrible disease, such as the dreaded vinegars.At about eight years, the wine succumbs to rot and within about half a year it is spoiled. “We will serve no wine before its time” means that we have let the wine age until the tannins are smooth.

Kevin Zraly, who was sommelier at Windows on the World (he was buying wine elsewhere on Sept. 11, 2001) and who still runs a famous and prestigious school for sommeliers in New York City, says you should not drink a wine until you can read the menu through it. Wait five years till it is mature and drink it all before it spoils in eight years.

Most wine — about 95 percent of it — should be drunk when you buy it. Fruit wines and some others — Beaujolais Nouveaus, for example — should be drunk in their infancy because changes as the wines age reduce the fruit flavors and leave nothing.

Big, red table wines, which have been properly aged, and fortified wines, which are aged before they are released, such as Cogburns (pronounced “ko-burns”) tawny port at $18, should be drunk when purchased.

Ports and other fortified wines can be saved for decades, but why bother? They don’t change in the bottle because of the extra alcohol. Light color table wines, light red wines, whites and rosès mature in one or two years and usually are shipped after the final rackings and fining, about a year after the grapes were picked. They are usually ready to drink when you buy them.

Don’t clutter up your cellar. Choose the clearance sale whites, which are two or three years old and at the peak of their flavor when you buy them. These wines begin to fail and spoil after about five years.

So to sum up: White, light red and rosè table wines should be bought when they are between two and five years old and drunk when you buy them. Big red wines (tannic dark-colored wines) should be bought when they are more than three years old or laid down in your cellar if they are young. They should be drunk between three and eight years old, when you can read a menu through them. Other wines should be drunk when you buy them.

Jo and Tom Chesworth are both AWS-certified wine judges and can be found in the