Selecting wine to cellar can be an intimidating prospect. Like art collectors, wine enthusiasts have an enormous field to choose from, plenty of history and theory to absorb, and budgets and physical environments to work within. Many of us also have nagging doubts about our natural inclinations, or apprehension about the mistakes we’ll make without the insider knowledge of committed wine buffs.
So it’s reassuring to hear a celebrated sommelier like Cutler & Co’s Liam O’Brien say the secret to successful cellaring lies in developing and trusting your own palate. He gives a big rap to reading and tasting widely, finding a wine writer and merchant or two whose tastes tally with your own to keep you in the loop about great vintages, and learning through trial and error to back your own judgement.
“In any cellaring decision, I’m most often looking at great vintages,” O’Brien says. “You could drink a wine from a good to very good year and as a young wine the difference between that and the excellent year might not be that much. But in 10 years’ time that difference seems to be amplified and the wine from the excellent year will really streak ahead and show just how great those conditions were. Often the good to very good year will age OK, but the wines just don’t seem to reach maturity with the same level of finesse and balance and harmony.”
The chemistry taking place in wine cellars across the globe remains somewhat mysterious, even to experienced sommeliers. That makes predicting exactly how wines will age and when will be the best time to drink them a delightfully inexact science.
“Fruity compounds, esters, and things that derive either from the grape or the fermentation process evolve,” O’Brien explains. “They either break down or combine and change, so the fruit spectrum changes.”
A young Riesling may evolve from fresh lemon rind or lime juice characteristics to preserved lime or candied peel flavours. A young red tasting of fresh berries may develop berry compote notes. “It’s almost like the fruit is being processed in the bottle,” he says.
In broad terms, O’Brien concedes, certain varieties and regional characteristics lend themselves to cellaring more than others.
“As a rule, key things are reasonable levels of acidity and reasonable levels of ripe and enjoyable tannins, not harsh or coarse tannins, in a red wine,” he says. “And if you’re really looking to ensure wines get to that 10-year period, sweeter wines tend to age better than dry wines.”
Ultimately, though, successful cellaring means choosing well-balanced young wines you love for their taste, not their star rating. “I don’t believe in ageing wines that are so dense and so powerful to begin with that you almost ‘have’ to wait for them to mature to reach their peak,” O’Brien says.
“They should be enjoyable and balanced and delicious in the first place, and the ageing process is just another layer over the top. You’re not waiting for a transformation, you’re just waiting for evolution.”
Dos and don’ts
- DO test wines you love at three, four and five years to get a feel for how they age.
- DO use wine and food matching at restaurants to try great wines at their peak.
- DO keep your wine in a well-insulated room with stable temperatures clear of drafts and vibrations.
- DON’T doubt your judgement if a wine tastes past its prime. Every palate has different thresholds for taints and faults. A slightly metallic taste means it’s gone too far.
- DON’T hold off too long in drinking cellared wines. Better three years too early than too late.
Liam O’Brien’s top five wines to buy now and open in 10 years
2015 Canberra District Shiraz – Clonakilla ‘Hilltops’ Shiraz
2014 Chablis – Domaine Besson
2013 Tuscan Sangiovese – Pian delle Vigne Sangiovese
2015 Macedon Ranges Chardonnay – Shadowfax
2015 Pyrenees Cabernet Sauvignon – Mitchell Harris