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The downside of cellaring wine

Bottles on ullage (Photo: Bob Campbell MW)

Founding CEO of NZ Winegrowers (then Wine Institute of NZ) Terry Dunleavy, invited me to sample some ancient vinous treasures. He was sorting out the wine cellar in the back of his garage and, realising that quite a few bottles were past their “Best By” date he thought it might be fun to open them.

Unfortunately, the storage temperature proved to be less than ideal. Many of the bottles were only three-quarters full. Terry chose a dozen bottles of local wine that ranged in vintage from 1969 to 1985. All were seriously ullaged.

I first established an appropriate scale by which to judge them:

  1. Truly outstanding, wish I had another bottle
  2. Amazing, lovely mature wine
  3. Not bad, very developed but offers good drinking
  4. Obviously aged, marginally drinkable
  5. OK to taste, wouldn’t swallow
  6. Seriously bad

A tip to anyone in the same situation. Use a Teflon-coated corkscrew with a wide worm to get a better grip. If the cork starts to mushroom and is clearly going to break, back off and try using a two-pronged ‘Ah-So’ corkscrew. If all else fails you can remove cork chips with a coffee filter.

The corks in most of the bottles were very soft. Some were impossible to extract but I managed to get most out in one piece.

Terry had a few old Bordeaux (which we didn’t open but plan to do so at a later date) including a 1959 Mouton Rothschild, 1976 Cheval Blanc and a 1986 Chateau Cos d’Estournel. They had been stored in the same conditions but had much higher fill levels. The reason is simple, they used better corks.

The best of the Kiwi contingent was Hunter’s 1985 Chardonnay, Marlborough. Although very developed with little fruit it was rich and buttery, chardonnay as it used to be, and not at all bitter. I gave it a 4+

Montana Chablis 1969, which scored 5, was pretty undrinkable, but I could still taste the character of a wine that I drank many times while working for Montana in the early seventies. It was probably made from the hybrid baco 22A and palomino and tasted pretty bad upon release but in the day we quaffed it without complaining.

Temperature-controlled storage facilities (I use Transtherm cabinets) will greatly extend the life of wine, but they can also encourage wine hoarders to keep precious bottles for far too long. I don’t regard myself as a hoarder but reckon that at least 20% of the bottles in my cellar are in decline. The greatest challenge facing every wine cellar owner is how to avoid the obsolescence factor.

3 thoughts on “The downside of cellaring wine”

  1. Mahmoud Ali says:

    Hello Ken, I’m afraid there is no “con” to speak of as most insiders know that the French tend to drink their wines young while it is the English who prefer them older. Some people have been know to refer to it as an Englis palate. The key point here is cellaring conditions. You cannot expect wine to cellar well if the conditions are not right. Here we’re talking about a 32 year-old Chardonnay and a 48 year-old “Chablis” made from poor grapes. Who in their right mind would leave these in a garage for so many years. I have no qualms about cellaring wine but I would never cellar wines from an era when there weren’t many good New Zealand wines. Of course New Zealand now makes some lovely wines but I recall being in New Zealand back in 1995 and tasted through some Royal Easter Show winners and i can honestly say that back then it was the whites that were starting to come good but the reds were lacking and in need of improvemet. I believe they have and are now seriously good, as are their whites and I have a number of them in my cellar, my oldest being a 2000 Thornbury Cabernet Sauvignon from Hawke’s Bay.

    As for the Bordeaux, too bad they were in a garage otherwise they would likely be lovely wines with the ’86 Cos d’Estpournel still being a youngster. I know because a friend of minde served it more than a decade ago and i thought it was seriously tannic and closed. For my own part old wines are there to share with friends, and most recently I opened several old bottles for their birthday, a 33 year-old German Riesling, a 27 year-old Bordeaux (still going strong) and a 54 year-old Chianti Riserva that they guessed to be from the 80s. An amazing bottle that I bought in the early 90s.

    I would not hesitate to cellar New Zealand wines but the key is to cellar them properly.

    Cheers ………………. Mahmoud.

  2. Peter G says:

    My experience is that you can do your friends a great favour by sharing your aged wine with them before it departs down the proverbial hill. It is a special experience for those who do not have a cellar and always a much appreciated present. There is little else more frustrating than finding you have held onto wines well past their prime because you could not get around to consuming them. Think of your friends!

  3. Gillman Ken says:

    I think the French conned the English merchants, some of whom do not know half as much about wine as they think they do, into believing great wine must be aged. Was it because so much of their stuff so so thin and tannic they had to persuade people it would ‘mature’? By then, hopefully, they would have forgotten from whom they purchased it! I agree Bob, much good wine is kept to long, much of it becomes different, but does it really improve? only sometimes. The older I get the less old the wines I drink are. As a french chauvinist once said “Wines are like your mistresses, the older you are, the younger they need to be”.

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