The vast majority of the wine you are likely to purchase is ready to drink when you get home from the store. What happens when you put a bottle in the back of your wine fridge or dark closet and forget about it? What happens with really old wine?
Well, it will not harm you. Alcohol acts as a preservative. The wine could turn brown, loose fruit flavors, take on nutty nuances, and just taste bleh in general. But you can drink it without fearing an emergency room visit.
Even in the most dire case, where the wine turned to vinegar, it would be exceedingly unpleasant to drink, but it would not hurt you. Drinking too much wine can hurt you, but drinking old wine will not. Unless you drink too much old wine. That’s another story.
Some wines—vintage ports, Madeiras, sauternes—are built for long life. Often, they work wonderfully when they are older than you are, even older than you will ever be. But they are the exceptions.
Wines have an arc of best drinkability. In broad terms, white should be drunk young and reds may benefit from a little age. Still, the aging span for most wines is a few years, maybe a decade. The $12 bottle of pinot noir will not get better with age. It likely will get worse. Drink it now.
The $50 bottle of Napa cab or Bordeaux blend may get better with some years, but it also will be good right now. Italian Barolos are so built for aging that they cannot even be released until more than five years of bottle age, better ones 10 years. By the time you buy, it will be time to taste it.
The Rubicon confronting anyone with an extensive collection of aging wines is “when have you waited too long?” Deferred gratification has virtues and rewards and perils. My rule: when in doubt, open the bottle and enjoy. Who knows what the morrow brings? Toast this night tonight.
• Symington Quinta da Fonte Souto Portalegre Branco, Alentejo DOC 2017: Lush, delicious, complex. Superb acidity makes it great food wine, also sets it up for aging. White with power and depth. $30 Link to my review
• Rombauer Zinfandel, California 2017: Classic, robust, delicious California zinfandel. Elements of blackberry and raspberry jam stand out. $35 Link to my review
Last round: Friends know the number of glasses of wine you can handle before you make poor choices. That is why they handed you that glass.