Q: How do you know which wines will taste even better if you keep them a few years? My husband thinks we should keep red wines on the shelf but that we have to drink white wines right away. Is it that simple? - Carla, California
Alas, Carla, it isn't quite that simple. The good news is, for those of us who don't have the inclination, budget, or space to amass an extensive cellar, we can avoid thinking too much about it because while every wine will change with age, very few wines will dramatically improve with age. Change, for most wines, just means a gradual loss of freshness, aromas, and fruit flavors. When all conditions are ideal, older wines acquire new aromas and flavors while losing harsh tannins and becoming better integrated overall. So now you'll want to know which wine you have on your hands.
According to wine guru Kevin Zraly, 90% of the wine in the world is meant to be consumed within one year of the vintage. Another 9% is made to age for about five years after the vintage. Only 1% of all wine made is meant to be aged more than five years, and to make it into that category, it needs the right mix of body, fruit, tannin, and acidity. That tends to come from reds more often than whites, though some of the longest lived wines in the world are white dessert wines like Sauternes and Tokaji.
If you're buying wine for under, let's say, $30, you're probably not buying something built for the long haul, because winemakers that achieve that chemistry are going to charge for it. If you do have reason to believe you've got a treasure on your hands, it's vitally important that you have proper conditions for aging: someplace cool, humid, dark, and stable. You're going to have to know when that wine reaches its peak to truly enjoy it, which either means you buy a case and occasionally pop one to check on it, or you keep in touch with the producer for advice. Oh, and you'll want to be sure you actually prefer the more subtle, earthier qualities of aged wine over the fresher taste of a young wine.
It's complicated, but unless you're buying that 1% of ageworthy wine, you can just buy what you like and drink it within the year. In summary: For most of us buying and drinking wines everyday, it's just like R. Kelly says, "Age ain't nothing but a number."
Got a question like Carla's? "On the Bottle" is a column about wine and spirits appearing every Friday on the Martha Stewart Living Radio blog. Email your booze and wine quandries to email@example.com and they'll be answered in a future post.