When to pull the cork


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Last month we went to stay with some friends in Scotland for the first time in 15 years. They have a large, light kitchen with a generous skylight, French windows and another window. As usual, the kitchen is the heart of the house and the room that is usually the warmest.

The Scotsman has always been keen on wine and, like many wine lovers, has over the years amassed quite a collection of bottles. The last time we went to stay, I rearranged them in a suggested order of consumption. I wish now that I had also persuaded him to radically change where he keeps his wine. Because the Scot, like so many, and indeed as suggested by so many kitchen designers, keeps his several wine racks in the kitchen – at the lightest end of it in his case.

What brought me up short was the sight of a dusty bottle of Rousseau Chambertin 1989 that I had given him many years ago sitting on the top of one of these racks, exposed to maximum light and heat – in the worst possible position for a wine as fine and relatively fragile as this. As usual, my laptop was not far away and I was able to look up the current value of this single bottle – if it had been stored in suitable conditions: around £1,500. A ruminative silence followed.

I then couldn't help noticing that he kept his sparkling wines in the rack closest to the French windows. Wrong! No wine likes light in the long term, but sparkling wines are most prone to 'lightstrike', whereby prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light imparts an unappetising wet cardboard taste to the wine.

Inspection of our semi-basement guest room revealed a very large walk-in closet that would be a perfect place to store wine, being cool and dark most of the time – and never particularly warm. Wine is best kept at temperatures as constant as possible under 18 °C (64 °F), should ideally never reach 25 °C (75 °F), with a conventional ideal somewhere between 10 and 15 °C (50 and 59 °F). But it is no good keeping wine in an outdoor shed where temperatures may occasionally fall below -4 °C (25 °F) in winter because then, depending on the alcohol level of the wine, there is a danger that the wine will freeze, expand and disastrously force the cork out of the bottle neck.

Underground storage is ideal because it is naturally cool and sufficiently damp – generally about 75% relative humidity – to ensure that corks remain damp so that no harmful oxygen is allowed into the bottle. Cork-stoppered bottles should be kept horizontal, or at a slight angle so long as the cork is wine-soaked, whereas screwcapped bottles can be stored any old way. Fastidious French wine producers have been known to switch importers because they kept stock in too dry a warehouse, however diligently cooled it was.

Keeping wine sufficiently cool can use up a great deal of precious energy*. This is the disadvantage of course of the wine fridges that are now so popular, but at least you can dictate the precise temperature at which your wine is stored and can feel confident that it will remain constant. They take up quite a bit of room and are most practicable for no more than a few dozen bottles – which is why so many wine lovers use professional wine storage for the young wines they buy in quantity. Not that many houses and even fewer apartments today have suitably cool, dark, damp spaces. The Scotsman is lucky to have at least one.

But, having bossily redesigned one end of his kitchen, I thought I should take a look at how he was getting on with my suggested drinking plan. To my horror, I saw that he had made hardly any progress at all. Admittedly his wife had gone off wine two or three years ago, but I knew that they frequently entertained, and that they had a particularly thirsty son in his late twenties who had only recently moved out. What went wrong?

These dusty wine racks were a symptom of an extremely common condition I will call Stuck Cork Syndrome whereby the owner of a bottle of wine believes it to be too precious to open. Ever. The Scotsman used to love driving down to the Languedoc and driving back with a case of Minervois from his favourite property, Château de Gourgazaud. Here in his racks were three dozen bottles of Gourgazaud's best, dated 1997, 1995 and 1992. Minervois is one of the Languedoc's appellations, the wines usually made from a blend dominated by Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. I would normally reckon to drink even the better examples within 10 years, and neither 1997 nor, especially, 1992 were particularly successful vintages. We tried a bottle of each that evening. The 1992 was indeed past it. All its youthful fruit had dissipated, leaving just a rather hard, metallic, alcoholic liquid. The 1997 was a dusty variant on that theme. The 1995, made in a superior vintage throughout most of France (my Rule of Five again), was certainly drinkable, even if past its exuberant best.

The next morning I noticed that all 12 bottles from the case of Château Beau-Site 1989 St-Estèphe I had also given them were still in the rack – admittedly at the coolest bottom of it. I was a bit more optimistic about the red bordeaux because, as I wrote in Wines for newborns, this is one of the longer-living types of wine – but Beau-Site is a cru bourgeois rather than one of the classed growths so generally matures much faster, and 1989s were the product of a particularly hot summer with lower-than-usual acidity, thought to be a preservative for wine. I persuaded him to open a bottle the following evening. It was certainly a bit more fun to drink than the Minervois but was still incontrovertibly on the way down from its peak, the fruit being in retreat and the bouquet, while quite complex, a bit muted.

The other day I was talking to our hostess on the phone. When she told me they were expecting a particularly hard, relatively undiscriminating, drinker for dinner, I rather meanly suggested they might offload some of the unsatisfactory Minervois on him. 'Oh no', she said, 'he won't be allowed to get his hands on that.' Stuck Cork Syndrome is clearly incurable.

Here, very approximately, are my suggested number of years for which an average example of a typical vintage of various types of wine should be kept, although of course this varies enormously according to the character of each vintage and the quality of each wine. In general, the better the wine, the longer it will live.

Almost all wine retailing at under £10/$20: 1-2
Chablis: 3-15
Côte d'Or white burgundy: 3-10
Other wines based on Chardonnay: 2-6
Wines based on Riesling: 3-20
Wines based on Sauvignon Blanc: 1-5
Wines based on Viognier: 1-3
Wines based on Chenin Blanc: 3-15
Noble sweet wines: 5-35

Almost all wine retailing at under £10/$20: 1-3 (although some particularly good red Côtes du Rhône and old-vine Spaniards can provide exceptions)
Bordeaux, Madiran: 5-25
Burgundy: 4-20
Northern Rhône: 4-15 (Hermitage longer)
Southern Rhône: 3-10
Languedoc-Roussillon: 3-8
Barolo, Barbaresco: 6-25
Brunello di Montalcino: 5-13
Chianti: 4-10
Rioja: 5-20
Ribera del Duero: 3-15
Douro table wines: 4-12
Vintage port: 12-50
Other wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon: 7-17
Other wines based on Pinot Noir: 4-10
Other wines based on Syrah/Shiraz: 4-12
Other wines based on Grenache: 3-8

*Daniel Primack who represents Eurocave in the UK points out, 'EU law has changed recently, and becomes even more forceful from January 2015, meaning all wine fridges have to be A rated with certain less energy-efficient coolants (the gas inside that does the physics bit) being banned.

'Indeed, the core range called “Pure” from Eurocave has been A rated for a year now, and we estimate based on current electricity tariffs that it costs less than £50 per year to run a wine fridge at 12 degrees C in a standard 21-degree living room. A large unit holds 15 dozen.

'As most owners of premium wine fridges think £40 is = to one bottle, I am not sure they do in fact use up a great deal of precious energy.'