As previously discussed in Millesima Tips #5 on the subject of ageing, certain wines have the tendency to improve tremendously over time. Harsh tannins soften, acidity evens out and fresh, tart fruit flavours give way to dried, stewed and jammy fruits on the palate. An old wine also carries with it a certain mystique and charm, as it embodies the conditions of a vintage trapped in a bottle. There is nothing like opening a bottle of wine from one’s birth year on a special occasion or celebrating an anniversary with a bottle from a precious date. Nevertheless, serving an older bottle of wine presents certain challenges. In this episode we will discuss some tips on the proper treatment of an older bottle of wine.
Challenges posed by an old bottle…
A bottle of wine is unique in that, in many ways, it is “alive.” And, as any other living thing, it ages over time. Opening an old bottle may be daunting to many, especially considering that these vintage wines may be special to the taster or cost significantly more than last year’s rose. There are several things that can go wrong between the bottle and the glass.
The cork serves as a stopper for a bottle of wine and is made of an organic, naturally porous material. Through the cork the wine has the chance to breathe as it ages. The resulting micro-oxygenation catalyses the desired chemical changes that take place during this time. However, improper bottle storage can lead to several faults as a direct consequence of problems with the cork. The cork may be fused to the neck of the bottle or out of place, due to careless handling. The most common flaw is that the cork dries out. This can happen if the temperature of the cellar is too high or if the bottle is stored vertically instead of on its side, with the liquid inside not touching and hydrating the cork. When the cork dries out, it can shrink, allowing too much oxygen to rush inside and oxidise the wine. This results in a change of colour from red to orange-brown and a bitter flavour that is hard to miss. Unfortunately, oxidation cannot be undone and a wine that is oxidised should be discarded. A shrivelled, stuck or damaged cork may also break during extraction and drop small bits of wood fibre into the wine. Of course, fishing these out by pouring the wine through a strainer is one solution, but not a very pleasant one.
Sediment is the mix of insoluble particles that gather at the bottom of a wine bottle over time. It may include small pieces of grape skin, pulp and stems, as well as dead yeast cells (lees), bacteria, tartrate crystals and chemical complexes formed by anthocyanins and tannins. While some wines are filtered or fined to remove sediment, in many cases producers see the latter as beneficial, adding colour and complexity to the wine over time. Most wine professional claim that colloid and tartrate sediments are in no way a sign of poor quality in a wine. In fact, their presence indicates graceful bottle ageing and often a more complex flavour profile. Sediments pose a problem when they are disturbed, however, when particles mix into the wine, resulting in a cloudy appearance, gritty mouthfeel and bitter flavours.
… and how to deal with them
Ageing a bottle can prove quite risky. It is necessary to choose the right cave and to let the wine rest with as little exposure to sun or warm air as possible. There is, unfortunately, no way to repair wine that has already been oxidised due to cork damage during storage, just as there is no way to fix wine that has reduced from “suffocation”, cooked from high storage temperatures, or been “corked” upon exposure to TCA. There are, however, several ways to avoid damage to a precious old wine by serving it correctly.
While basic, wing corkscrews and “sommelier knife” style corkscrews should work perfectly well for younger wines, bottles over 20 years old may require a bit more attention. One good practice is to have a twin-prong cork puller (also known as a “butler’s friend” or “ah-so” cork puller) on hand. These are specially designed to remove the cork whole, without causing any damage to it. To use, simply insert first the longer then the shorter prong between the cork and the neck of the bottle, one on either side of the cork. Next, carefully wiggle the thing down over the cork until the prongs go as deep down alongside it as possible. Then gently twist, moving the cork up and out of the neck of the bottle. One of the most recent innovations is the Durand, which combines the ah-so with a complementary piece that consists of a metallic helix attached to a stabilizer bar. By first screwing the helix into the cork and then inserting the two prongs down the side of the cork, wine collectors can more safely extract soft, old corks.
Of course, one can also side-step the corkscrew completely by using heated Port Tongs to form a clean fracture in the bottle neck right under the cork, but this involves a very hot fire and ancient metal-ware. In our opinion, it’s best to leave this one to the professionals.
Although filtering wine through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth is always an option to remove sediment, pouring the wine off its dregs is often the easier solution. If a bottle is being opened for a particular occasion, whose date is known in advance, it is recommendable to stand the bottle up vertically for a few days before it is opened to allow the sediment to collect at the bottom. If this is not the case, and the bottle is taken right from its horizontal repose to the tasting, a wine cradle may be useful to hold it in the right position while pouring the wine off the top.
The decanter, discussed in greater depth in Millesima Tips #7, is an elegant piece of glassware, designed to not only aerate wines before a tasting, but also help with sediment removal. Decanters work particularly well with wines like a Bordeaux Blend or an aged Syrah, which benefit from limited exposure to oxygen before tasting. Pour the wine carefully at a 45° angle from the bottle to the decanter, making sure to stop when you see the sediment move toward the neck of the bottle. Aged wines that are a bit more fragile, like those of Burgundy, you may not want to decant, as these wines may oxidise too quickly and lose their unique character. In these cases, it is best to pour very carefully using a wine cradle or to strain the wine through a cheesecloth.