One of the magical things about wine is that it is a living, breathing thing; once bottled, it doesn’t stay the same, but continues to change and evolve. Most wines are best drunk in their full flush of youth, when they still have all their exuberant fruit. Some, however, are made to improve as they get older and more mature. In an age where new is best and youth is prized above all else, there is something to be said for fine wine.
Not all wines are made to improve, however, and as a rule of thumb, wines costing less than £10 are generally intended to be drunk in their youth. Many will ‘keep’ for a year or two, but they’re intended for early drinking and don’t have the structure required for long-term development. Left too long, they’ll lose their fruit and won’t develop any interesting characteristics to make them interesting. Those around £15 and over probably have some development potential over the short-term, anywhere between 3-10 years, but that can vary depending on the quality of the wine and the style of the wine.
At the other end of the scale we have fine wines which in their youth seem clunky and awkward, yet to find their balance, not unlike a teenager. Perhaps with some time in a decanter they will come around, but better yet, they’d like to go back into their rooms (or in this case, the cellar) and come out again in a few years, butterflies emerging from their chrysalis. Mature Bordeaux, Burgundies and German Rieslings are some of the most complex and beguiling wines in the world, and the best Sauternes can continue to develop for decades.
These wines are becoming increasingly rare; wine-making technology and our understanding of the vine, ripeness and climate continue to improve. Many of the finest wines are drinkable in their youth in a way they never were before, yet still retain the capacity to develop. Many of the fine wines we carry in store are of this type, drinking well now, but with plenty of future interest.
When to drink? The answer to that is very simple. Crack a bottle open and enjoy it; if you think it’s great now, drink up. It’s all too easy to let bottles sit and gather dust, waiting for that ‘perfect moment’. With experience, you’ll develop an instinct for spotting when a wine has potential for development, but wine was made to be consumed, so don’t get too hung up on waiting for it – fall in to that trap and it might end up past its prime.