When to Drink < Helpful Hints < Wine Expert | Online Wine Store | WSJwine

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The question of when to drink wine causes far too much worry. Age alone does not give you the answer. There are guidelines but wine is not a precise science — more a matter of personal preference. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide when you drink your wines — but here are a few useful rules of thumb. Remember this is your wine and you must decide if you prefer them young and vibrant, or older and mellow. Wine changes considerably with age and as with people you may prefer one in it's youth, while others improve as they gain the wisdom of maturity.

How long should white wines be kept?

Most white wines (particularly inexpensive bottles) are best drunk as young as possible — certainly within a year or two of the vintage. Their appeal is in their freshness and fruitiness. Leave them for much longer and those lovely fresh flavors fade away. There are exceptions however. Full-bodied whites like top-quality Burgundies, other big Chardonnays and fine Rieslings will usually gain complexity with age. Sweet Semillons (Sauternes and the like), Muscats and other dessert wines also reward keeping. Good Champagnes also evolve nicely in bottle. Great Chenin wines appear to last forever.

Don't you have to keep red wines for years?

The simple answer is no, not these days … though, again, it depends. They contain more tannin, the stuff that's also present in long-brewed tea. It comes from grape skins and acts as the wine's perfect natural preservative. You know when tannin is present because of its uncanny mouth puckering effect. Big traditional reds (like those from some of Bordeaux's greatest estates) can have masses of tannin and do need to be stored for many years before they are soft enough to drink. The fruit mellows and other strange flavors like leather, smoke and earth appear from Lord knows where. The myth that all red wines must be aged to be drinkable stems from these old traditional methods of winemaking. Personally, I prefer to drink even fairly tannic reds young. However I will always drink them with meat or cheese because they soften out the tannin (it is amino acids that do the trick — similar to milk 'softening' the tannin in tea).

Which reds are ready to drink straight away?

Today we know how to make wine without much tannin and most is perfect for drinking quite soon after the vintage. The Australians are masters of this rounded, fruit-driven style … but they are by no means alone. In France — Beaujolais, the Loire, the Rhône, and many areas of California all produce lovely, early-drinking reds as do the more progressive estates of Spain and Italy.

So, there are no firm rules?

Absolutely not. If a wine is well-made — and all of ours are — it will not fall apart at some pre-determined date in the future. I do prefer my wines before the fruit dries out and they smell like dusty autumn leaves. However, one of the greatest wines I ever tasted was a 1947 Grand Cru Burgundy when it was 45 years old. Still full of life and fruit but with amazing complexity. Very rare, admittedly, but it's surprising how long a well-made wine will keep stored in the right conditions.

What if I open a bottle not quite at its peak?

All is not lost. If the wine seems a little young, try a mouthful of meat first — or cheese — that will remove the bite, or try re-corking and leaving it a few days. Or you can pour the wine into a decanter. The exposure to air often softens the rough edges a bit. This has worked for me on a couple of occasions.

Does all this help you? Not much, I suspect! But we do our best to let you know in our lists and features what we consider to be the 'ideal' drinking date for a wine. Please don't use these as exact 'best before' times but more as general guidelines. Establish your own preferred style (vibrant and fruity or soft and mellow) and 'aim off' what we say to please yourself.