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When to open that bottle

Many readers seem interested in how -- and how long -- to store wine, and when to open it. There are no easy answers, but we've got a couple simple rules of thumb.

Not infrequently, you'll hear folks at wineries and wine shops ask rhetorically why more people don't inquire about aging wines.

Because, they'll then tell you (with more than a little frustration), we're all opening the stuff the moment we get it to the parking lot.

Winemakers acknowledge that more of their customers want wines that are ready to rumble as soon as they're bottled. So many of today's wines are indeed built to be drunk almost immediately. I think that's a shame, since age can soften a harsh (but well-made) wine and make a great wine into something extraordinary.

But many readers seem interested in how — and how long — to store wine, and when to open it. Clearly, there are some people willing to wait. How long is the tricky part.

Andrew Bryant, Atlanta: "How old is too old? How can a 100-year-old bottle be delicious and refreshing, and a new bottle of two-year-old 2003 have turned bad when it's been in a cellar its whole life?"

If only there were a simple answer.  Some wines are built for age — many good Bordeaux and Barolos, for example, need at least five or 10 years before they start tasting the way they should. Others truly are meant for that parking lot.

I wish there were a simple rule of thumb to tell you when to open. There isn't. While more expensive wines certainly should be age-worthy, that's not always true.  A lot of good Condrieu — sublime viognier from a tiny patch of the northern Rhone — costs more than $50, yet it peaks after just a few years.

As for specific bottlings, many wine magazines now do the service of including in their reviews when a wine will peak. Wineries often can tell you as well. But with all the uncertainties in wine storage, it's really all an educated guess.

One rule that does generally apply: Drink cheaper wine (and I'm talking here about under $10) within six months to a year from when you buy it. Yellow Tail isn't designed for the cellar, which isn't to say you can't enjoy it.

As for the 2003 that already turned, it's probably not an aging problem. It's either (a) truly cruddy wine, or (b) a flawed bottle. Perhaps it's been corked.

Zin time?Another case: Jeff in Maryland asks about some bottles he and his wife bought during their 1998 honeymoon in Napa and Sonoma: "How long can we keep the zinfandels before they will begin to degrade? These wines are now six to seven years old."

Zinfandel isn't made to age the way a Cabernet might. Even the best usually have an outside of 10 years. So Jeff's zins are probably just about hitting their prime right now, depending on the wine and its storage conditions.

In other words, drink up, Jeff. Maybe wait for your anniversary or Valentine's Day and uncork these as a nice way to remember your wedding and honeymoon.

Pam H., Houston, Texas: "My mother and I are debating about Beaujolais nouveau. I say it expires within a few months, she thinks it lasts forever. Can you help?"

That's an easy one, Pam. You're right.

The "nouveau" ("new") in the name is the giveaway. Beaujolais nouveau is made as a young wine and originally was intended to be drunk shortly after the harvest. You might have up to six or eight months at the outside, but I wouldn't wait a whole year. In other words, all your nouveau should be gone by the time the new batch arrives in mid-November.

Sadly, some retailers don't quite share this view. At a local liquor store — a state liquor store — I recently saw a bottle of 2000 nouveau for sale. I hadn't thought the state was quite so hard up for revenue.

Turn, turn, turn?
Joy, Bakersfield, Calif., asks: "I have several bottles of wine I store on a wine rack. My friend told me I need to give each bottle a quarter-turn every couple of weeks. Could you kindly explain the reasoning behind turning the bottles and your recommended frequency."

I have never heard of doing this. 

For older wines, turning might stir up the wine's natural sediment and keep a deposit from forming. But plenty of old wines do just fine with sediment stuck to the bottle. (Otherwise, it should be filtered out, which is one reason to decant old wine.)

In fact, most storage is specifically designed to keep bottles from moving. And some good ports are sold with a splash of white paint on the bottle as a sort of "this side up," so you know exactly which position you should store it in.

The only time I've heard of quarter-turns is in traditional Champagne-style winemaking. The old-fashioned method of remuage, or riddling, requires occasional bottle turns to help move sediment into the bottle neck, where it can be removed. But that's before it's ever sold.

Consider the extensive wine cellars kept by many restaurants — to say nothing of wineries' own storage facilities. Specifically, consider some French caves, where bottles can sit for years, if not decades, piled one directly on top of the other.  I'm absolutely positive they aren't turning their bottles.