Many years ago, my great-aunt asked me to go through her liquor cabinet.In addition to the usual suspects — Chivas, kirsch, schnapps and Bailey’s — I found several bottles of Moët et Chandon Brut Imperial, a nonvintage Champagne, with aged labels. She told me they were left over from her son’s bar mitzvah, which had occurred during the Kennedy administration. At the time of this discovery, President Bill Clinton was in his first term.
I told her the Champagne was almost certainly dead, but to be sure we exhumed it from the cabinet and opened one up, hoping for a miracle. Sadly, my initial suspicion proved correct. Humming taps, we poured the rest of it down the drain.
More recently, I had a tasting of some older wines from Priorat, a French region with lofty ambitions but not much of a track record. Some of the wines held up, but quite a few were flat and, if not past their prime, certainly not aging with grace.
Several of the bottles came from a friend’s wine cellar, so he has his work cut out for him since there were more bottles in the racks.
Every so often, I open a bottle of wine from my collection only to find that I wish I had cracked it open several years earlier.
Hey, that happens, as collecting wine can be as much of a crapshoot as the NFL or NBA drafts. That said, I urge everyone who has even a few bottles of wine lying around to do a little spring cleaning.
In particular, look out for rosés that are from 2010 or earlier. The 2011 wines may have lost some vibrancy but should be drinkable. Some of the 2010 bottles may still be alive as well. The odd 2009 bottle has survived, but most are questionable. Of course a few rosés are built to last, but that is the rare exception.
Vinho Verde, Txakoli and Beaujolais wines that are village-level or just AOC also have a shelf life that is limited to 18 months or so. Beaujolais nouveau makes it through one trimester, but that is about it. This does not always mean that the wine is oxidized, but that its salient quality of freshness has significantly diminished. Many chardonnays start going downhill after ?three years, some just two. The same is true of dolcetto and pinot noir.
Nonvintage sparkling wines can be tricky because they do not have a stated vintage. You might want to mark the purchase date on the label. As a rule, I’d give most Champagne about three years from the time I bought it and other sparkling wines two. You never know how long it has been sitting on the shelf in the store, but nonvintage bubbly turns over frequently.
Granted, we all have different thresholds for older wines, and I even like a hint of oxidation in some of my white and sparkling wines. However, when the wine is altered beyond recognition and the finish is nonexistent, it is time for the 21-gun salute.
The silver lining is that wine stores will often discount rosés and other wines at this time of year to make room for new vintages. You don’t want to get stuck with a dud, so ask before buying. But you may find some great deals on wines that are still very good. First see what you already have stashed away, as wine should be consumed when it is alive and tasty, not when it has already become a relic.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.