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What is old wine? Nearly 20 years of wine enthusiasm has led me to think there is no single answer. A decent base-level understanding of wine only leads to more questions.

Two bottles of recently consumed wine have me reflecting on somewhat older wines. I haven’t consumed much 1980s Bordeaux or Burgundy but I have learned some things with Napa Cab and Oregon Pinot Noir.

The real starting point for this discussion is the truth about wine consumers. I’ve worked about 20 hours a week for two years in retail wine sales. Our shop is in an affluent neighborhood with a nice mixture of young people as regular customers. The average price point ranges $15 to $25. Still, we sell a good amount of higher end wine, $60-$125 and up.

Customers occasionally do ask about aging a $20 bottle of wine. I try to politely explain those wines are not made for aging. Drink them. I advise they find a decent decanter and air those red wines out for an hour or so and it will  probably improve them a little. The truth is American consumers want to drink wines when purchased. Winemakers are largely making wines for immediate drinking.

I make a point to ask winemakers how long to hold wines before consumption. During a trip to Napa the consistent answer was 5 years – though some high-end Cabs can certainly be held much longer. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, winemakers say 4-5 years.

IMG_0346In my personal wine-drinking experience I’ve found those numbers to be pretty accurate. In the last month I have enjoyed a 2003 Joseph Phelps Insignia. Insignia is an iconic label, a wine that has always scored 90 points and higher. It’s always a stunningly gorgeous bottle of wine. The current released vintage, a 2016, sells for $300 a bottle and received a 96 point rating from Wine Enthusiast.

The second bottle was a 2012 WinderleaCrawford Beck Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The ’12 has always been hailed as a classic Oregon vintage. This wine can be found online for $50-$80.

image0These two slightly older wines performed the same. Both bottles were disorganized with an off-putting nose when opened. But, after an hour-and-a-half decant both started coming around. After another half hour in the glass both wines were coming into their own and showing as outstanding wine.

No one can tell you exactly when to open an older bottle. Pedigree and time in oak have an impact on how long you can age wine. The best advice is to experiment. Take a small taste when opening a bottle then “check in on it” while the wine opens up.

I’ve never tasted one of those 50-year-old Burgundys. Though I did have a 1991 Gevrey Chambertin this past winter that showed me potential for what aged wine can be.

Buy what you can afford, give the reds a decant, and decide for yourself what makes sense in aging your more pricey wines. If you really want to test aging, but a couple bottles – open one and wait another year or two and try the other. That will help determine your palate for aging.