The Huntington Estate Guide to Cellaring Wine
At Huntington Estate, we believe that time is the true test of a red wine, and that great wines improve with age, growing in complexity, subtlety and finesse.
That’s why we make our reds to age, and generally release them at 4 to 5 years old; confident they will continue to improve for at least another 5 years, more often than not 10 and more.
Why Cellar Wine?
There are so many benefits to cellaring wine from the experience of the product to more practical ones. Above all, there is simply no better way to achieve the subtlety, elegance and balance of a fine wine than through careful cellaring over time. Drinking a well-aged fine wine is a sensory delight. There is also real pleasure in sharing special bottles that you have nurtured for years: drinking wine from the year you graduated, met your partner, got married, went on that trip to Mudgee for the weekend, the year your child was born etc.
A well-aged wine is extraordinary value for money, punching well above its weight. And of course making considered and interesting purchases means always having a selection of great wine to hand to match every occasion and meal vs grabbing a bottle at the bottle shop and hoping for the best.
What can go wrong when cellaring wine?
Cellaring wine is not without risk although these days, the advent of the screwcap has not just removed the risk of cork taint, but improved the cellaring potential of wines by reducing oxidation (exposure to air) resulting from an imperfect seal for example by the expansion and contraction of the cork in response to changes in temperature.
The main enemies of good cellaring whether the wine is under cork or screwcap remain heat and light, both of which accelerate the ageing process, and an excess of either will completely degrade a wine. For example, a bottle of wine shut in a car on a summer’s day can age 10 years in an hour.
Try to avoid the following:
- Temperature changes (within a 24hr period).
- Direct sunlight.
Another common error is allowing wines to slip past their prime, ‘wasting’ the potential in the bottle, by not keeping track of what you have.
How to Cellar Wine?
If you haven’t got a cave deep under your Chateau where natural light doesn’t shine, and the thick stone walls moderate even the most extreme temperature shifts don’t panic. The next best thing is to empty the nest, evict a sullen teenager, requestion their air conditioned room and black out the windows. If that’s not an option, and you’re not allowed to empty the Linen Press either, just try to find somewhere with:
- Moderate temperature changes within the day/night.
- Out of direct sunlight.
Eg. Internal cupboard under the stairs or a dark space against a cool external wall.
Wine fridges are great but they are expensive and space is limited. There are also some excellent 3rd party wine storage places eg. Kennards, Wine Ark etc that are surprisingly reasonable, and they come with the added advantage of preventing impulse raids on the good stuff.
Keeping wine on its side is a must for wine under cork (to keep the cork moist and retain the seal), but isn’t necessary for wine under screwcap.
What makes a good wine cellar?
- An appropriate space (see above).
- Make sure the wine is age-worthy in the first place (most wine isn’t!). See below.
- Make sure you like aged wine! Sounds silly but not everyone does… See below.
- Keep a variety of wine styles and types.
- Learn to recognise the signs of a wine peaking and declining.
- In an ideal world, buy decent quantities so you can dip in over the years (3 to 12 bottles).
- Buy / put away wines that will mature at different times (you don’t want it all to peak at once).
- Catalogue it properly (a notebook will do, or for the more serious one of the many apps available eg. CellarTracker).
- If the wine was a gift, write it down – it can be lovely to share it with the givers in years to come.
- If it’s a separate room, a lock on the door and put rodent bait on the floors (they love to nibble on corks, the bastards).
How do you know if a red wine will be good to cellar?
1. Tannin / Acids
- The wine will have strong tannins and acids in its youth, balanced with good fruit.
- Tannins and acids provide structure but also help preserve a wine, slowing oxidation and flavour degrading reactions. They soften with time, and in an age-worthy wine this brings balance, marrying fruit and structure. I like to describe tannins and acids as the scaffolding around a building (the wine) that with time falls away to reveal the beauty beneath.
- A young wine lacking tannin / acid will not have longevity, and one lacking good fruit but with tannin / acid will never be great.
2. Listen to the winemaker
- What is the winemaking philosophy? Is the wine designed to age?
- At what age is the wine released?
- Does the winery have a pedigree of producing age-worthy wines?
3. The variety
- These rules are generalised, and there will always be exceptions depending on winemaking style and terroir.
- Shiraz and Cabernet will reliably age for the longest, then Merlot / Grenache, then Pinot.
4. The terroir
- Acid in grapes degrades in hot ripening conditions.
- Warmer years and climates tend not to produce wines that age as well as cool conditions.
5. Alcohol %
- Wines over 15% in alcohol often don’t age as well as those between 12% and 14% because their ripeness often results in lower acidity.
How do you know if Whites are good to cellar?
- Riesling, Semillons age the best in the Australian context.
- Higher acid levels help longevity.
How do you know if a wine is good to drink?
- The best way is of course to open it, which is why we recommend buying at least 3 bottles. Open 1 bottle when you buy it then based on that experience and an understanding of how wines age, plan and note the next trial dates!
- Check the colour and clarity (use a torch).
- Ullage (for wines under cork, check the fill-level. A loss of wine ‘the angel’s share’ is not necessarily a sign of a problem but is an indicator that something’s happening that is not ideal).
What happens to wine as it ages?
|Colour||From purple red to cherry to brick red. Red wines lighten with age. Rust red is not a good sign (although in Pinot is more acceptable than others).Most aged wine will throw a crust in bottle, which is good sign! Just let it settle.|
|Aroma / Flavour||Generally the primary fruit characters (eg. Black, red fruit) last longer than with whites. Secondary characters (leather etc) emerge alongside primary, and will eventually replace the primary fruit.For Huntington wines, these secondary characters tend to emerge at around 8 to 10 years and combine with the primary fruit to enhance the experience of the wine.|
|Palate||There is nothing like the balance, softness and light of a well-aged red wine. Tannins and acids naturally soften for silky smooth palate that doesn’t register either.|
|Faults||Most faults are amplified by age. Yeasts such as brettanomyces that are imperceptible in a wine’s infancy, and fine in its youth can take hold of a wine as the sulphur wears off, ultimately dominating it (less common in modern Australian wines, astonishingly still an issue in many venerable European wines).|
- Stand upright for 24 hrs. Gently decant anything older than 8 years.
- From 8 to 10 years, check every 2 years or so. In general, if at 10 years the wine still has good colour and firm acid, you’ve got at least another 5...
- Faults amplify with time. A trace of Brett (horse poo / band-aid character) when young will eventually take over – monitor carefully and drink earlier than you otherwise would.
Aged whites are a bit of an acquired taste and are not for everyone! For the connoisseur of aged whites, what they might lose in freshness and delicacy they gain in complexity and intensity and structure.
Some varieties age better than others. Notable age-worthy whites include Riesling and Semillon; Australian Chardonnay can be a bit hit and miss in the long haul. Rose is definitely a ‘drink when young’ wine. A good sticky will last 20 years or more and develop very gradually in bottle.
|Colour||Changes from straw to honey, to bright yellow. Orangey brown and it’s past it!!Cloudy wine is NOT a good sign… it means the wine is unstable (and yes, that goes for natural wines too!). Crystals that look like sugar / glass are harmless tartrates and have no impact on quality or longevity.|
|Flavour||Aromatics (floral) pass. Primary fruit characters (citrus, stone fruit etc) tend to fade to be replaced by honeyed, marmalade notes.Acid eventually softens.Nutty / milk arrowroot characters are signs of oxidation and that the wine is on the turn, and while they can even be pleasant in the early stages, they will take over and dominate eventually.|
|Texture||Light, fresh and crisp to fuller, more textured, soft and round.|
- Check at around 8 years or age. Presence of primary fruit and acid is a positive indicator of longevity.
How to drink aged wines?
- Stand the bottle upright for 12 to 24hrs, out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources to allow the sediment to settle.
- Gently pour the wine into a clean, transparent receptacle (I like to use a stainless steel funnel). Use a torch to shine into the bottle to make sure that you stop before you pour the sediment in. I don’t believe in fancy decanters and often use a vase myself. Rinse the original bottle and gently return the wine to its original receptacle. This is a show of respect to the winemaker and a source of information for the drinking guests!
- Depending on the age, let the wine open up by leaving it in the bottle over a couple of hours again out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources.