Are You Going to Drink that Wine?

You’ve gone to the store and come back with a few impulse buys—six bottles of wine. One is for tonight, but what about the rest? Do you find yourself aimlessly stashing the extras in a kitchen refrigerator or dining room wine rack? Do you end up forgetting about them? Well, I hope you have some sort of plan because that wine is not going to live forever.

A bottle of wine is not a time capsule. Like all living things, wine ages over time. Even though it’s sealed in a bottle, it continues to gradually change from its youthful fruitiness to a more mellow and complex thing—just like us. But how much time you have before it becomes a relic depends on the wine.

According to Kevin Zraly, founder of the Windows on the World Wine School, only 1 percent of the bottles produced in the world are meant to be aged. “Ninety percent of all wine made in the world today is meant to be consumed within one year,” he says. “Another 9 percent should never see more than five years. Therefore, 99 percent of all wines should be consumed within five years. If you're shopping in the $5 to $25 range, all of those wines are meant to be consumed now.”

We’ll get back to Mr. Zraly’s comments shortly. For now, it’s fair to assume that in general you want to drink a wine sooner rather than later. So how much time do you have on those extra bottles? Well, it comes down to drinkability and enjoyment. One reason for allowing them to lie around rent-free in your house is that younger wines haven’t had the time to develop any additional characteristics; their aromas and flavors are more monolithic. Frequently, with one or two years in the bottle, they become more complex, and therefore more interesting. In fact, some sort of aging may be required in order to mellow out the tannins, or roughness. One caveat, though: If you keep your house warm, the wine will age at a faster rate.

So, does Mr. Zraly really mean you have to spend more than $25 to get a wine that has aging potential? I would respectfully disagree with him that all bottles between $5 and $25 should be consumed quickly. All wines are not created equal, although price can definitely have a bearing on whether or not the wine has the ability to age. So, here are a few of my not-so-scientific tips for storing wine, which apply to both reds and whites. Just remember, wine hates heat!

If the wine cost is:

  • under $10 – store up to 1 year
  • $11 to $20 – store up to 2 years
  • $21 to $30 – store up to 3 years
  • $31 to $40 – store up to 4 years
  • $40 to $50 – store up to 5 years, or more
  • $51 – you should be writing this instead of reading it

One last bit of advice. Look at the vintage date on the bottle. Most white wines will be vintage dated 2 years prior to the current year. Red wines will likely be dated 3 to 4 years prior to the current year. Therefore, if you discover a $15 bottle of chardonnay on the store shelf that is dated 2005, its biological clock began ticking 5 to 6 years earlier. So caveat emptor!