A primer: Why and how to put down area wines for future enjoyment
Writer Ray Pompilio
Since you are reading this article, you are likely someone who enjoys drinking the bounty of our region. Some studies have shown that nearly 90% of wine purchased is consumed within 24 hours, and as much as 95% is drunk within a week. As our society becomes more attuned to instant gratification, this trend is likely to continue. But should it?
Most drinkers like to buy the most recent vintage—fresh, like they might buy their milk or vegetables. This is not a bad thing, but it certainly isn’t everything. Many of our local wines, both red and white, will taste better as they get older. Here are some suggestions as to what kinds of wines can be cellared, for how long, and how they might change after doing so. There will also be guidelines for storing the wines without having to invest major dollars for a professional-grade storage unit.
To start, one should know a little bit about what wine is. Wine is the result of crushing and fermenting grapes into a liquid that produces alcohol. Your favorite wine has other components, however, that make up the whole—acids, tannins and varying amounts of sugar and alcohol left after that process. All of these components can dictate the ability of the wine to age.
Let’s start with the acids. The Finger Lakes’ lack of long, hot summers results in grapes with good, fresh acidity. The primary acids are tartaric and malic, the acid found in apples. A wine needs these kinds of acid to improve with age. The acidity level acts as the support base for the wine’s “structure,” which is the relationship of the aforementioned components. Without structure, the wine will probably not improve with age. Our regional white grapes, especially Riesling, and a number of red grapes, particularly Cabernet Franc, often offer good structure.
Tannins provide wine with texture, and come from grape skins and oak aging, when used. Both acidic structure and tannins help wines balance richness in foods, mostly ones containing animal or dairy fats. Most area Rieslings are not fermented or aged in oak, but recently some top producers have fermented and/or aged primarily in used, neutral oak. Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc, however, utilizes extended skin contact and, often, barrel or large oak casks for aging. Thus, both varietals can be cellared to improve with age, which will soften some of the acidity as well as smooth the tannins. Remember: The reason to cellar your wines is to taste how they can develop with age.
The combination of residual sugar and alcohol content also plays a part in aging, but is not easily spelled out. The large majority of wines cellared to age are dry, but Riesling is one wine that can still improve when containing sweetness. The key here is to have sufficient acidity to balance the sugar, however. The only red wines with sweetness that should be cellared are very sweet dessert wines, such as port-styled or the very rare red ice wines. As far as alcohol content is concerned, sweeter Rieslings with as little as 8–9% alcohol can age well, but reds should be in the 12–14% range.
The final two basic considerations for aging are producer and vintage date. These parameters are not always clear, and often depend on your taste preference. When making decisions on bottles to add to your cellar, start with your preferred producers as well as well-reviewed vintages.
It’s very important to read reviews when choosing bottles to age. A good local source for reviews of very many Finger Lakes wines is Douglas Hillstrom’s Finger Lakes Wine, found at www.fingerlakeswine.info. His reviews for vintages of the wines go back to 2010, and he adds a new wine each week. He specifically does not accept samples, and buys each wine instead. He will taste the wines by themselves, paired with food and taste the next day after refrigerating them overnight.
How to Cellar
Use a dark place, and keep the bottles on their side if they have corks. Many Finger Lakes wines, especially Rieslings, use high-quality screw tops, which can be stored upright. Keep them cool (55–59°F is optimal), with about 55–75% relative humidity. Space in your basement is best—don’t store wines in the heated part of your home. Small temperature and humidity gauges can be purchased for around $10. Get one to make sure your wines don’t get too cold or warm.
Store above the floor level if water can seep into your basement. Use sturdy shelves, and you can keep the bottles in their cardboard box, on its side. If your space is very damp, however, don’t use boxes, which can grow mildew and affect wines with cork closures.
If you want to spend extra money, there are many kinds of wine racks with all sorts of bells and whistles. If cost is not important, go for a cellar unit with temperature and humidity controls. There are units that can hold as few as 12 or as many as 1,000+ bottles.
Once you have your wines cellared, how long can they age? It all depends on the wine, and the way it has been stored. Well-made Rieslings from good vintages can age far longer than one might guess, easily for five to 10 years and in some cases even longer. Other Finger Lakes whites may vary, and area reds such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir can still taste good 10 years later.
Following drought-like conditions in the Finger Lakes, 2016 offers well-structured wines that should age very well, especially the Rieslings. 2017 was “an easy year,” according to the area’s most experienced winemakers, that had little disease pressure and provided an abundant harvest. These wines are now the most available for purchase and offer lots of ripe flavors and good concentration, but their ability to age well is still undecided. Try the same wine from both years, if possible, to see the differences. Remember: A good wine is one that you like. There’s no time like the present to start your journey of tasting older wines—enjoy!
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of the magazine.