For those of us who collect wine, there comes a time of high anxiety where we look upon our flock of prized chickens and decide which one will be dinner. Good friends are coming over – ones who appreciate a nice bottle and won’t gulp it down like Tang (not that I bear a grudge, Wayne and Brigitte) – and hey wow you’ve been staring at the same bottles for twenty minutes. What to open? What’s ready to drink? What goes with dinner?
The bad news is that although the process a wine undergoes over time is science, there’s no exact science to determine a wine’s readiness besides opening it. The good news is that I drink a lot of wine and I’ve noticed some patterns over the years. What follows is accordingly my personal take on what to open and when, but let me first address some caveats:
1- There are no absolute truths in wine: any rule or truism, no matter how accurate, will have exceptions to it. You might think of contradictions to many of my points, but those are baked into the pie, so there’s no reason to tell me and try to make me sad.
2- Why do we keep wine? To make it better. If a wine is delicious, balanced and tastes developed, why are you waiting? For sure, a special occasion deserves a special bottle – those parameters are yours to decide – but from a purely gastronomic perspective, if all the boosters are firing then launch, commander.
3 – It is better to drink a wine too young than too old. Yes, drinking it too young is like missing the last 20 minutes of a movie, but overshooting the wine’s peak is missing the entire movie plus the theatre smells like mothballs and regret.
With that out of the way, here are my thoughts regarding what to open when, starting with the USA:
Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: Producer dependant, but excepting the Bordeaux-aligned houses (Dominus, Opus, etc.) I find that 15 years past harvest date is as long as I’d leave it because we don’t want to lose too much of that youthful fruit. Even the stratospheric cult Cabs usually have more fruit weight than structure (and whoa nelly do they have structure) so this is one of those categories where you don’t pay much of a penalty for tucking in too early, and that’s why I never have much Napa in my cellar despite buying it frequently.
Napa Merlot: Do it. Fortune favours the brave. Can it age? Like, probably? It has honestly never come up. So decadently gratifying when it’s young, its hair has never greyed. First to get thrown in the volcano.
Napa Pinot Noir: Mostly house-trained but the odd producer will jack the structure so look at 5 years from harvest date if you want to play safe. Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon: Can be leaner and more structure-forward than Napa. Drinkability unironically seems to conform to how much you spent on it. Over $100? Best to wait 10 years past harvest date. Under $100? Largely home free.
Sonoma Pinot Noir Russian River: Your luxury Cherry-Cola-Bath is ready for you, master. Structure can vary but the sweet fruit almost always overcomes it. Go and sploosh.
Sonoma Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast: Entirely producer dependant. I’ve tried coastal Pinots (Sonoma Coast AVA, Fort Ross-Seaview AVA etc.) that drank like security blankets, but New School producers (Rhys, RAEN, Wayfarer etc.) favour brightness, planting in the coolest spots they can find and picking earlier. These need a few years to integrate the acids, but they’ll be fab.
Santa Barbara / Santa Maria Valley / Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir: With a few exceptions, have at ’er. Built to smile.
Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon: No penalty that I’ve found for opening it early, but some of the more premium bottles can become pretty darn charming after 8 or 9 years past harvest date.
Paso Robles Rhone-Style: Here be dragons. Generally found on the ultra-premium side, these Syrah/Grenache blends – they used to call the ones mixed with Cab “Crazy Blends” until I went there and no they don’t – tend to be fruit dominant but if you drink them too early, there are other passengers on the train. Savoury, gamey notes alongside earthy vibes – these are highly desirable but only once integrated with the fruit and structure, drunk young all of these elements are too individually loud. Since most of these wines are bulletproof, wait at least 10 years past harvest date to enjoy something truly sublime.
Lodi Cabernet / Zinfandel / Petit Sirah: This place can ripen rocks. Brilliant value for full-bodied drinkers, with complexity and character. I’ve never found one that wasn’t good to go.
Central Coast Reds: With the caveat that the potentially more age-worthy bottles don’t tend to come up here (there are abundances of tiny producers up and down the coast), anything I’ve come across from Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Carmel etc. has been a pleasurable, immediate experience.
California Zinfandel: With the exception of a few houses that treat Zin like Burgundy (Bedrock, Turley) you can jump in, the water’s fine. I’ve tried 40-year-old Zin (Clos du Val) before and it’s very cool, but that’s a lot to ask from a grape that came to the party looking for kicks, not commitment.
California Blends: Such a nebulous category, where literally anything can happen. Most of these are made to drink, but there are a few that take their cues from their European cousins and reward long-term cellaring. The labels can serve as signposts, here: if the name is wacky, clever or sarcastic, drink it. If the label is colourful or has an animal on it, drink it. If the label is minimalist, uses cursive, and resembles a wedding invitation to Downton Abbey, it’s probably a good idea to hold onto it. It’s not exact, but you’d be surprised how accurate that method is.
Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: Oregon’s State Bird Pinot Noir was once a reliable early drinker, but in the last decade or so it has become increasingly producer dependant as certain producers have tacked more faithfully towards their Burgundian muses. This largely hues to the price scale as well, if you paid more than $100 for Willamette Pinot, maybe look up the drinking date? If you find yourself with a “keeper”, you’ll be very well rewarded art the 8-to-12 year mark.
Washington Cabernet Sauvignon: Washington producers would loathe that I lumped in all their Cabs into one slot, and they’re right, but gosh we’re all kinda busy so let’s say this: if your Washington Cab says Horse Heaven Hills or Red Mountain, there’s a very good chance it’s embryonic and you should ad 10-20 years to the harvest date. If it says Columbia Valley then use the similar method as the Sonoma Cabs – If it cost over $100, hold it. If it cost under $50, drink it. Between $50 and $100, look up the producer and count how many times their website says “elegant”.
Washington Merlot: Some of the best Merlot produced on this pale blue dot. Buy and drink more of this, but only if you like happiness.
Washington Syrah: These strikingly bold and beautiful wines are – IMO – the most ageable wines that Washington makes. Even if they’re drinkable early, they’ll invariably develop into something more impressive. 10 years from harvest date at least.
Napa Chardonnay: There are people who love to age these 10 years. I can’t hear them because I’m too busy gulping down Napa Chardonnay.
Sonoma Chardonnay Russian River: There are a few producers making ageable wines in RRV, but it’s still a predominantly drinkable style (VERY drinkable).
Sonoma Chardonnay Sonoma Coast: Just like the Pinots, this depends on the producer, as many are leaning into the more elegant, Burgundy-inspired structures, thus needing about 8-10 years from harvest date to integrate. This method is far from exact, but look at where the vineyards are, more inland and the fruit trends rounder, more towards the ocean things can get more saline and mineral with higher acids. Cellaring these are very rewarding and are excellent value compared to Burgundy.
Santa Barbara / Santa Maria Valley / Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay: The pricier ones can integrate nicely if cellared for 7-9 years, but I’ve found that the majority of these velvety Chards are a glorious Butter Bath, open for business.
California Sauvignon Blanc: Haven’t found one that wasn’t ready and yum.
California Viognier: Is it possible to drink this before opening it? If so, do that.
Oregon Chardonnay: While there are some buttery, glugable options for Oregonian Chard, I’ve largely found these to be some of the best cellaring whites in the US. Even if everything is balanced in youth, the fresh structures keep things vibrant while the aromas get more complex. Try 8-10 years from harvest date.
Washington Chardonnay: Some absolute gems here, but it’s a fairly inconsistent category, style wise, so look up the producer to gauge age-worthiness.