Ken Robertson

How long can a bottle of wine be aged?

One of my life’s lessons from the COVID-19 year is this: Good wine, well taken care of, can remain remarkably youthful for a couple decades or more.

Starting in April 2020, I began working, more or less diligently, to reorganize and trim back the roughly 1,000 bottles of wine in my basement. I finally expected to have more time to devote to it.

So far, I’ve had mixed success, but at least the total has been trimmed by 150 bottles, maybe more. And no, my wife and I didn’t stop buying wine, but we did buy a bit less.

I would estimate we opened about 350 bottles during 2020, which meant more diligent exploring of the two 300-bottle, temperature-controlled wine cabinets downstairs and the 50-bottle one in our kitchen reserved for whites and rosés.

Along the way, I discovered more than a dozen red wines, all about 15-20 years old, languishing in the back row of the downstairs cabinets. I opened them fully expecting some would have faded.

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Instead, most had thrived despite my negligence and were delightful. Among them were a 1999 and a 2000 Waterbrook Red Mountain Meritage. Both of these Bordeaux-style blends seemed able to age even a bit longer and were nowhere near collapse. And we were happy to rediscover some delightful wines from the era when Eric Rindal was still Waterbrook’s owner-winemaker.

In the same area of the cabinet were a 2002 Gordon Brothers (now Gordon Estates) Tradition (a Columbia Valley red blend), two bottles of Barnard Griffin 2005 Reserve Merlot and two of 2004 Sagemoor Partners red blend from Barnard Griffin.

The Gordon was still quite good, but by evening’s end was fading a bit. The BG Reserve Merlot and Sagemoor Partners both were outstanding, showing off great fruit, smooth tannins and a complex, layered structure.

Still waiting to be opened soon are the second bottles of the two Barnard Griffin wines and a 2005 Meritage from Chateau Ste. Michelle, unless there are more undiscovered nooks in the two cabinets’ crannies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a word or two about white wines and their ability to age. I’ve been experimenting a bit with two whites that have some promise to age well — Riesling and Semillon.

Chateau Ste. Michelle agrees with that. It has established an aged Eroica Riesling program in which it re-releases some of its Eroica six or 10 years after its original release date. I have kept a few bottles of a few vintages for five to seven years, and they are a bit less fruity, more rounded and mellow, but appear to have lost little charm and gained some finesse.

As for Semillon, I had some that I clearly aged too long in the past — 15 years or — and it had mostly lost its acidity and fruit. However, this past year, I rediscovered a bottle of 2011 from Chinook made from Yakima Valley fruit. It remained lively, acidic and showed off its varietal character. We drank it with seafood, and it was superb. A 2013 Semillon from L’Ecole made with Columbia Valley fruit also was excellent despite being eight years old.

I should note that none of these wines were bargain basement. Quality does count in choosing wines to age.

In addition, all these wines had been stored properly and not accidentally abused. Leave a bottle of wine in your car for a sunny, 100-degree summer holiday weekend in the Tri-Cities of Washington, where I live, and it may well be baked past its prime.

In my much younger days, I left some favored reds in a rack atop my kitchen refrigerator and ruined them over a few months because of the heat dumped out the refrigerator’s backside 24/7.

One of my favorite grocery stores some years ago had fluorescent lights just inches above its wine shelves. Not knowing any better, I bought a bottle of oaked Chardonnay positioned right under those lights. When poured, it was the color of apple cider and far less palatable, though it was only two or three years old.

Some folks may offer more exact guidelines about aging, but the more I learn about older wines, the less confidence I have in precision. There are too many variables. I can say that much somewhat confidently, roughly 50 years since I discovered interesting wines during dinners given by a few of my college professors.

Wine word: Fining

As wine ferments and then ages, whether in stainless steel, oak barrels, amphora or any other vessel, every day is a chemistry lesson. That’s why winemakers monitor their work regularly to ensure nothing has gone awry.

Even as the fermentation winds down and the wine begins to resolve into what it will eventually become after time in the tank or barrel, the winemaker’s work isn’t done. Along the way to the bottle, one of the important processes required for the attractive, gem-like clarity we all desire is fining, which assists in removing cloudiness and haziness.

Fining agents work by adhering to the cloudy or hazy matter, either physically or by electrolytic attraction, forming tiny colloidal groups that drop to the bottom of the tanks or barrels as sediment. The agents most commonly used are bentonite, egg white, gelatin, isinglass, casein and tannin, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.

Egg whites, for example, carry a positive charge that will remove anthocyanins and tannins. Bentonite, with its negative charge, will remove protein haze, often seen in white wines as fermentation winds down, even after cold fermentation and chilling.

Ken Robertson, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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