Wine 101 - Down the Road to Collecting

With the Question: "What do you Like?"


Not surprisingly I get asked many questions about wine.  While some fall into the category of why does the wine smell, taste, look, or feel the way it does, at least as many focus on what to buy. Recommending wine is a tricky business under the best of conditions. Knowing a person’s palate preferences is usually the key.

When I am asked, “What should I buy?”  It is usually qualified by one of the following, for dinner, as a gift, to start my cellar. Each of these is worthy of an email. I’ll be writing a pair of gifting emails as the holidays approach, and will follow soon with one covering the basic food and wine pairing principles, but today I want to begin to tackle all that is “cellarable” wine.

To get to the root of the question “What wines should I cellar?” one needs to begin by figuring out what one likes. That is the relatively easy part of this puzzle. Finding the wines you love is a fairly simple deductive process, and fun too! You just need to discover WHY you enjoy a specific wine. Now that sounds simple, doesn’t it?

What to expect: Acid

Acidity is naturally occuring in wine. Grapes produce malic acid, tartaric acid and citric acid, in addition to more esoteric acids. Acidity in wine is responsible for a zesty, crisp, refeshing feel that helps to balance a wine's naturally sweet flavors, or residual sugar. As grapes ripen, and their sugars increase, their acidity tends to decrease. Winemakers walk a fine line between harvesting ripe grapes with intact acidity on one day, or perhaps waiting for the next when they might be faced with even riper grapes lacking in acidity. Cool nights during the final days before harvest help to preserve the grapes acidity, though winemakers today can both add and remove acidity to suit their goals.
I know this may not be the answer everybody wants in response to this question. It would be easier for me to simply suggest the great ageable wines of the world, and leave it at that. There are only two small problems with that solution. The first being, simply, that you may not enjoy those wines, rendering my advice useless. The second, closely related to the first, is the fact that wines you may enjoy today may very well NOT be the wines you enjoy in the future.

You might think that finding wines to cellar is not worth the effort, or simply too difficult, but trust me, if it’s a question you’ve asked it’s a question worth answering. There will be problems, wines that did not turn out as you had imagined, or wines that you come to find you don’t really enjoy, but the path of discovery you’ll take is exciting enough and rewarding enough to turn those errors into minor irritations. And besides, you’ll always have wine for your friends and family!

So to begin with we need to find where your preferences lay. In general one has to sample wines at the extreme end of the spectrum to really get a feel for ones preferences. Much of the great wine of the world, at all price points, has converged on a style that renders them very medium. Medium acid, medium tannin, medium structure, and, well, you get the idea.

A good place to start is finding out if you enjoy wines with significant structure. The acid and tannin that serve as the framework to support aging of wines are referred to as the wines structure. For most age worthy white wines that structure is the acid, though sugar gets involved here complicating things for everyone.  The great reds rely on a balanced combination of acid and tannin.

The first step in calibrating one’s palate is to try wines that are high in acidity and tannin. Two grapes spring to mind as particularly high in acid: Italy’s Barbera and Sangiovese. Both offer a good way to check how tolerant you are of elevated levels of acidity. In fact most Italian wine can be thought of as high acid, in that they do exhibit a leaner, more acidic profile than grapes more commonly associated with other regions, such as Spain and France, though Gamay and Pinot Noir are both prone to making high acid wines with modest tannins.

Discerning Structure in a wine.

Find Zesty Barbera
Barbera, in particular less expensive Barbera that has only been aged in Stainless steel, is particularly low in tannin, giving a real gauge against which to judge how your palate  reacts to acidity. Sangiovese has a bit of tannin, more as you move up the price scale, and especially so when you start getting into Super Tuscans and the like, but your good old fashioned Chianti will give you a nice zing of acidity without too much tannin getting in the way.

Find Soft Grenache Based Wines
Finding wines that exhibit low acid, and low tannin, is a tougher project. Dolcetto and Grenache are two prime examples of wines that have hope of fitting the bill. The level of acidification and barrel ageing these two wines are liable to receive makes the search not quite impossible, but close to it. Still, if one searches and selects wines from a warm climate, or the warmest vintages, one can easily uncover soft, opulent examples that are ideal for this sort of experiment.

The last step, of sorts, in working out one’s structural preferences, is to attack the wines that feature both high acid and high tannins. Grapes like Nebbiolo and Baga are famed for their combination of these elements, and though many producers have worked diligently over the years to soften the image, not to mention the impact on the palate, of these two giants there is only so much one can do.  In general wines made with Nebbiolo and Baga tend to retain a certain rusticity, especially at the low end of the price spectrum, that many find appealing.

So there it is. Step one in my answer to the question “What should I Cellar?” in all it’s glory. Again I could have easily just recommend some Bordeaux, a few Barolos, a Burgundy or three and been done with it, but the truth is that there is so much more to cellaring wine, and so many wines worth cellaring, that it really takes a bit of detective work to narrow down one’s choices, and increase one’s chances, of ultimately enjoying those bottles that you’ve loving laid away.

Next week we’ll work on the next step, identifying wines that fit specific palate preferences and get to the nuts and bolts of starting a cellar.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: atonalprime
    Hand of Snooth
    157790 1,416

    Nice article, Gregory. I recently had a 1999 Spinetta Ca di Pian Barbera d'Asti and was surprised how great it tasted, since all I had read about Barbera said that it couldn't age that well. While I do occasionally like a zing in a younger wine, I've found a lot to enjoy about wines that have aged a bit. I think the most surprising and pleasing of these have been some Californian Cabernet Sauvignons from the 80s. The softness and complexity of the wine is something I really enjoyed.

    Oct 29, 2009 at 1:17 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,989

    Playing the devil's advocate here, there's always the problem that many people won't like a wine (particularly old world wines from France and Italy) when it's young, but will when it has been aged. They might not be able to tolerate aspects of a wine's acidity or particularly tannins when it's young, but could fall in love with a complex, sophisticated masterpiece once it has 10, 20 or more years of bottle age on it and the acid and tannins have fallen into the balance that was envisioned.

    So perhaps it might also be good to talk about just how specific wines do age? Many people won't really know what a mature oldskool pinot noir, for example, can be like from only tasting it young. Something that feels strangling in the throat now can be sublime in 15 years.

    It seems to me that major varietals may also need different showcasings. How a great Barolo ages isn't necessarily how a fine Burgundy, Bordeaux or Californian does...

    Oct 29, 2009 at 1:45 PM

  • Snooth User: Piccolo161
    199543 37

    One important factor to bear in mind is what type of cellar you have. This may seem blindingly obvious but it's of particular relevance when it comes to champagne - I presume it holds true for other wine, but I'm not a specialist outside champagne.

    Most people I meet still keep their champagne/wine in the garage, kitchen or perhaps under the stairs etc. Very few people have a suitable cellar area that provides the ideal conditions for ageing wine : fairly cool with little variation in temperature all year round. No glaring light, an absence of vibrations and good level of humidity.

    Unless you have something approaching these conditions my advice would be not to keep your wine too long at all. The longer you do keep it, the greater the chances of disappointment when you finally open the bottle

    Oct 29, 2009 at 7:10 PM

  • I was pleasantly surprised to learn (I only am a fledgling wine geek, so please forgive my ignorance) how well a really well-made Riesling ages. I attended a dinner party recently hosted by a real wine pro, who had just been made redundant (laid-off). In a rather mordant mood, he said we were going to drink the best of his cellar to celebrate the occasion. He then brought out a 1975 Prum (I think I got the name right. This was after several glasses of other, awesome wine). Okay, so I didn't see God, but I came awfully close. What an amazing experience! So, in addition to the Barolos, Bordeaux and super-cabs from California, let's add Riesling to the cellar-worthy pantheon.

    Oct 29, 2009 at 8:46 PM

  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,575

    Joh. Jos. (often known simply as JJ) Prüm - he makes some great wines. There's a good profile of him here:

    Oct 29, 2009 at 9:32 PM

  • A great start to the subject, one thing you may want to cover is, "How long do you intend to cellar a particular wine for, and what kind of structure will satisfy this intention?" A differentiation between the requirements for aging whites and reds would be beneficial (acidity vs tannin).

    Oct 29, 2009 at 9:34 PM

  • I don't know if this is true or not, but when in Napa visiting a small winery, the winemaker told me that the best way to see what you "like" with regard to aging, assuming you have multiple bottles of a particular wine, is to open a bottle and taste it on sequential days. On the day you enjoy it the most, you use that as a guide to cellar the wine that many years. Has anyone heard this or ever done this as a test? Is it legit, or BS?

    Oct 29, 2009 at 10:01 PM

  • BS from my experience! I have never had a bottle of wine open for more than a few days that hadn't gone sour, and getting a few days out of an open bottle of wine is the exception, usually one or two days is is the max. Yet many well structured wines can be held for many years or decades.

    Oct 29, 2009 at 10:34 PM

  • Snooth User: johnmmoore
    170772 16

    I've heard this from several different sources - that leaving a bottle open for several days somehow approximates how well it would age in bottle. I haven't read any articles discussing this, but this seems to equate (or at least correlate) oxidation with aging, and that greatly over-simplifies aging. Clearly tannins are not precipitating out of a bottle of wine sitting open for a few days, and the debate over where the oxygen comes from in a corked bottle seems to be still ongoing. Some oxidation seems to be happening in a cellared bottle, but there are many other long term chemical changes happening which profoundly change the wine. A correlation would be hard to prove, but would be an interesting research project. Now, why certain wines hold up to oxidation and others fall apart is another interesting topic I'd also like to understand.

    Oct 30, 2009 at 12:35 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    I think there is a tiny bit of truth to that how many days does a wine last thing. It's more nonsense than not but a day or teo for very structured wines can give you an indication of what the wine may turn out like. Sometimes wines are simply a wall of tannins for the first day or more, allowing some to melt away can give you an idea of what lays beyond.

    Oct 30, 2009 at 7:00 PM

  • My best measure for seeing how well a wine will age is to just talk to either the wine maker (if available) or the person selling the wine. Another way I try is to see how big the wine is: (tannin) if it feels like my entire mouth has turned from smooth to rough, I feel that wine can age for at least a few years. I recently drank an '87 Spring Mountain cab that was beautiful if not at it's peak. There is also Chateau Simmard (St. Emillion?) which is currently releasing it's 1998 vintage, and at about forty dollars a bottle, you can see if you like older bordeaux.

    Oct 30, 2009 at 11:21 PM

  • Snooth User: STEED
    235077 7

    Interesting- regarding leaving a bottle open to rate it's oxidation.
    I have a bottle of 2005-Penfolds 'BIN 28' Kalimna Shiraz from Oz. Picked it up at the London wine show-opened 6 days ago-it's better now and NOT oxidised!
    Incidentally also tried a day old sediment filled glass of Penfolds Grange -2003- very good smooth tannins, even above the slight oxidation
    that had taken place.

    Oct 31, 2009 at 4:44 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    I recently had a Spring Mountain as well, I think it was the 84. Lovely wine and most likely very similar to your 87. I actually though it was the 87, as it had that warmer vintage profile.

    Nov 03, 2009 at 11:03 AM

  • Snooth User: ppatel
    183553 48

    How long should one let age a home made red & white wine? I have aged my red wine to two years with excellent results, but I am not sure if I need to age it any more, as it is home made>

    Nov 08, 2009 at 2:31 PM

  • The issue of what cellar conditions one has is important. In California where I live, houses--old or new--are rarely built with cellars, so wine coolers become necessary for cellaring wines. But again and again I see people building or remodeling kitchens where the placement of the wine refrigerator is not favorable for cellaring wines. It's probably a good idea to avoid putting a built-in wine refrigerator next to a dishwasher or other appliance that can cause vibration and, thus, bottle shock.As for wine refrigerators: There is a problem with consistency of temperature with many of the coolers currently on the market. Some vary greatly from the degree one has set, or will warm up too much before the cooling mechanism kicks in. Another thing to keep in mind regarding placement of a cooler: to how much light will it be exposed? A question on which I have no data: have any studies been conducted on how microwaves may affect wine? I have learned from sad and costly experience over the years that cellaring wines can lead to great disappointments. In a society such as ours, where the population moves so often, cellaring becomes problematic. I had built a wine cellar in my house in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s, but when I had to move to Southern California, all my cellared wines had to be moved too. Some survived the ordeal, but many did not.

    Nov 19, 2009 at 4:00 PM

  • Snooth User: gnnmartin
    373847 8

    I find it almost impossible to tell whether a young wine will improve with age. I love old claret, but with the better clarets you will be paying a high price for the assurance that the wine will improve with age.

    People selling or reviewing cheap wine usually say it should be drunk within a very few years, but in my experience, that is simply playing safe. I bought a lot of Bulgarian Cabernet in 1990 for between £2.60 and £3.00 a bottle, vintages 1981-1984. It was nice enough for the price at the time, but by 1995 it was quite delicious. I didn't buy later vintages of Bulgarian wine in case they might be a bit radioactive from the Chernobyl accident.

    I have notes on a number of other wines that I have bought and which have blossomed beyond reasonable expectation. Some notes sadly chronicle my grimly drinking my way through most of a disappointing dozen bottles only to find the last 2 or 3 were delightful. It works the other way round too. I bought the '93 Angelus, and it was stunningly delicious in June 2000, and while it is still as good as you would expect for a wine of that reputation, it is no longer quite the revelation that it was when I first drank some.

    I fear perhaps that today's cheap wine may not be so likely to improve with age, because more winemakers are going by the book which tells them how to make wines with immediate appeal, rather than simply making wines the way their fathers made them. All the same, my recommendation if you have a decent cellar in which to keep wine, and limited funds, is to look round for cheap wine from a smallish traditional grower, buy a couple of dozen of each, wait 4 or 5 years, and then drink a bottle a year and when (and if) it gets to being delicious, drink it up.
    Nigel Martin

    Aug 11, 2010 at 8:08 AM

  • I suspect you are correct gnnmartin that contemporary winemakers have opted for making wines with immediate drink-ability at the expense of making wines that will age well. I have read that 98% of all wine sold will be drunk within 24 hours of its purchase, so it is easy to understand the reason vintners struggling to survive, especially in a world economy that is teetering on the brink as it is now and will likely be for years to come, want to make a wine they know will be enjoyable right away. But my guess is that there will always be unsuspected gems sitting in bottles in some dim cellar that will emerge in the decades ahead as stars. I suppose that is part of the Romance of Wine, isn't it--the idea that one can never be certain what a living thing like wine will do as it ages? Like everything else in life, a bottle of wine is full of uncertainty, some full of potential, some perhaps not. But those that have potential may not fulfill it because as conditions in climate continue to change around the world, even cellars that have been reliable for centuries could be undergoing subtle changes that will affect wines stored in them. It isn't just temperature and light that affect aging, but vibration. With all the new earthquake fault lines beginning to awake, who knows if small tremors might affect that luscious wine sitting in a reliable cellar. Perhaps for winemakers as well as the rest of us during times of great upheaval and change there is something to that adage sing your song, drink up your glass, and live every moment of today.

    Aug 12, 2010 at 4:07 PM

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