Young Wines Built Tough


When the waiter arrives at your table with that Cabernet Sauvignon you ordered and the bottle is relaxing on its side, nestled in a silver wire basket, can you be sure he didn’t flip the bottle three times over his head before laying it in its cradle?

And could you tell the difference if he had?

Wine is believed to be a very fragile thing. Snooty collectors swear all wines have to be stored on their sides (to keep the corks moist) at precisely 54 degrees with a humidity of 77.34%, and that any light or vibration is death. They claim that any heat at all ruins the wine. They say they can tell if you cared for it properly--ideally, I suppose, by keeping it resting in its original wooden case, top still nailed shut, underneath your house, preferably covered by a mound of earth.

Bosh, I say. Wine is a heck of a lot sturdier than that. Coddling it may make you feel better, but likely as not, most wine isn’t going to spoil if you leave it on the kitchen counter for three days, or three weeks, or even mistreat it for a day or two. In fact, some torture might actually help a young wine.


Not long ago I tried a test that shocked 16 experienced tasters. I took a bottle of a fine 1989 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and put it in the trunk of my car. I left it there for five weeks, driving all over the county during one of the hottest parts of the summer.

Finally, I pulled the wine out of the trunk and placed it alongside another bottle of the same wine that had been resting on its side in my wine cellar, unmoved, undisturbed from its 60-degree home. A week later, I placed both wines in brown paper bags, removed the foil capsules and the corks, and replaced the branded corks with blanks, so the tasters would have no clue what was up.


I then poured the wine for the 16 and asked only one question: Which wine do you like better? Everyone said the wines were very close in aroma, and almost identical in taste, but 12 of the 16 preferred the bottle that spent its summer vacation just north of my transaxle.

Why? I suspect that this wine, being very young and tannic, needed to be handled roughly if it was to be appreciated so early in life. The wine clearly was made to be aged for a long time, and one way to accelerate its aging a bit and make it more approachable was to beat it up.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that everyone store young red wines in car trunks, but this little exercise was one bit of evidence that wine is far less fragile than some people think.

Most young wine benefits from some aeration, so another way to make a young wine taste better is to splash it roughly into a decanter or water pitcher and give it the air that will help open up the aroma.

I was convinced of this the other day after evaluating a group of 1992 Pinot Noirs. Many of the wines were so young (most had been bottled only months earlier) they lacked the aroma and character I knew they should have. So after the formal part of the tasting, I dumped the best of them into decanters and allowed them to sit for an hour.


Tasting them again, I found two of the wines, both rather inexpensive, had improved markedly. Some of the more expensive wines also were improved, but not as much.

The wine I felt improved the most was the 1992 Napa Ridge Pinot Noir, which has a suggested retail price of $7 but is occasionally discounted to below $6. The initial aroma had been mildly interesting with a bit of cherry and some simple flavors--a quaffable little wine. With aeration, however, the wine showed more complexity and actually took on what seemed to be better body.


Many people worry not only about overheating wine but about freezing it. Take the case of the mysterious floating stuff.


A reader once wrote that when she forgot to chill a white wine for a dinner party she tossed it into the freezer 90 minutes before the guests arrived. That was too long--when she was ready to serve the wine, it was frozen nearly solid. Some time later, with most of the bottle thawed, she noticed stuff floating around in the wine, and she thought the wine had been spoiled. She asked what to do.

The answer was: Drink around them. The floating stuff was tartrates, which are naturally, but invisibly, present in wine. Most wineries these days chill wine before bottling specifically to cause these tartrates to crystallize, so they can be filtered out of the wine. The only reason to do this is that if the tartrates are left in, some can eventually crystallize in the bottle and buyers might then complain about the “glass” they found in their wine.

This woman had apparently found a winery that doesn’t chill its wines. But the crystals are harmless and nearly tasteless, so when she feared her frozen wine would be spoiled, she was only partly right. She could drink the wine, but the crystals are no fun to taste. Otherwise, a bottle of wine that has been frozen is not generally spoiled, nor will most people notice much of a difference--unless they try to drink it while it is still frozen.

One thing you should avoid is standing a bottle of wine in bright light, especially ultraviolet light. White wine bottled in clear glass (the bottle companies call this color “flint”) are susceptible to getting a light-struck character, which smells skunky, like burnt matchsticks. In this sense, light can be far more detrimental than temperature.


The worst temperature damage comes from fluctuation, which can harm wine badly. If you walk into a liquor store in winter and are warmed by its heater and then months later you revel in its wonderful air conditioning, beware the wine storage.

Old wine, of course, is a different matter. It is fragile and should be protected from any changes in its storage. It doesn’t have the constitution to ward off the changes that are certain to occur from bad storage.

But young wine is far more resilient. So don’t worry about that bottle of Cabernet you left in the trunk for two days. It’ll be fine.