Learning to love aged wine

It was Monday the 11th of July 1994, twenty years ago tomorrow. I was what is now strangely called a ‘tween’. I know it was my brother’s birthday but I can’t remember much else about the day our family first opened the doors of La Vigna. What I now know is that very soon after this auspicious occasion, my father Michael began to put away a wide range of wines in La Vigna’s purpose built cellar – his own Secret Cellar. Many of these wines are now at the point where they need to be enjoyed, so we’ve enjoyed sampling a selection and we have them tucked away in a corner of the store for you to peruse next time you drop in. If you’re thinking these are expensive wines, you’d be wrong; my father aged a lot of wines in the $20 to $40 price range from the early nineties, and these are drinking now. It’s really quite rare to find affordable aged wines these days, they usually aren’t on offer in restaurants or mainstream wine stores, so I do think La Vigna’s cellar offers a very exciting opportunity to experience a mature wine for under $50. However, I know that many people still hesitate to buy an aged wine, for many reasons, so I thought I’d answers some FAQs and set your mind at ease about how best to drink a wine produced a couple of decades ago.

What happens to a bottle of wine when it is aged?
When we age a wine at La Vigna it is expertly cared for in the optimum conditions of our cellar. However, because wine is ‘living’, organic matter, every bottle of wine will age differently, which is part of the fun! There’s an element of surprise and, it must be said, of risk; during our testing of the least promising of our aged bottles we found some absolute gems, and an occasional bottle that failed to meet expectations. Regardless, over time the bright red of any wine will change to a lighter, browner colour, echoing the transformation of big, rich flavour into something less intense on the palate. Aged wines have utterly unique characteristics that you won’t find in young wines – it’s a whole new world of wine to explore.

What about the cork?
The idea of a fragile cork, degraded with age, is enough to make any wine lover nervous. Will the cork crumble? Will the bottle be ‘corked’? Yes, aged corks do sometimes crumble but the good news is that this DOESN’T mean the bottle is corked and the wine will not be ruined. Corked wine occurs when the wine is contaminated by cork taint –  you can tell before you even taste it because corked wine smells like damp hessian or wet cardboard. The age of the cork has no bearing on the chance of this happening – it is just as likely (or unlikely) for a young bottle to be corked as an aged one. When opening a mature wine we recommend using a two pronged wine opener, also referred to as an ‘Ah So’ (available at La Vigna for $20), which will help you get the cork out in one piece and avoid leaving any stuck to the inside of the bottle neck. At the top end of the market we also sell the very effective Durand opener. Whatever you choose, just avoid using your standard waiter’s friend. If, after all, the cork still crumbles, all is not lost! Decanting the wine through a wine funnel with a built in sieve will get rid of the cork, as well as any sediment. You can find these handy wine tools at up-market tableware shops or you could use the kind of wine aerators we stock at La Vigna, which come with a sieve but no funnel.

What do you need to do with aged wine before you can drink it?
As a general rule I would open a matured bottle of wine in the morning for drinking that evening. This allows enough time for it to sit and settle. The need for decanting is a matter of personal taste and I would always recommend tasting a wine first to decide if you want to decant it. Once you decant, you can’t go back so if you’re happy with the wine the way it is,  just pour from the bottle. Sediment indicates a mature wine but if you don’t want to decant you can leave 30ml of wine in the bottle when pouring the last glass. Of course, you still may need to decant because of a crumbled cork but hey, life was meant to be interesting!

What about white wine?
White wine can age just as well as reds and like red grape varieties, each bottle of white wine will age differently. However, white wines rarely need decanting.

So, the important points to remember when opening aged wine are:

–    Stand the wine to let any sediment settle at the bottom of the bottle
–    Pull the cork carefully with a two pronged opener
–    If the cork crumbles then use a sieve
–    Pour gently into a decanter if required
All of this is to say – don’t be put off by the challenges of aged wine. The variations of taste, colour and corks that mature wines offer are an opportunity for wine lovers to try something genuinely unique. The best part is that with La Vigna you can explore these vintages without splurging, so the odd bottle that isn’t exactly to your taste is not a great loss and the unexpected gems that have aged superbly will shine even brighter.

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