Drink or Hold: When is the Right Time to Pop the Cork?

Photo by Svetlana Gumerova / Unsplash

​So you just invested in a bottle of 2010 Barolo, one of the greatest vintages in the last decade for one the world’s most celebrated—and age worthy— reds.

Now what? Do you take it home and pop it open that same night, or do you carefully lay it down in your cellar (or Eurocave, as the case may be) and wait….years? But how long? And why is this aging fine wine business so complicated anyway?

Thankfully, it’s not as complex as it seems. Granted, you may need to do a little homework on vintages, especially these days when dry, torrid vintages are yielding wines that are more accessible than ever upon release. Case in point: many of the 2011 Barolos are already almost accessible, and you should be drinking these while you wait a few more years for the 2010s.

For those of you who are already thinking, “Sacrilege, drink 2010 Barolos in a few more years; they won’t be ready for decades!” it’s time to look at the drastic changes that have occurred across Italy, in terms of climate change, better vineyard management and improved cellar technology. And it’s high time to bust some of these aging myths.

True, it used to take decades for Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico to come around. Unlike many international varieties—like Merlot for example—Italy’s noble red grapes, namely Nebbiolo (the grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco), Sangiovese (think Brunello, Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile), Aglianico (of Taurasi fame) and Sagrantino, are chock full of assertive tannins, and firm acidity.  And up until the 1990s, cooler, wetter growing seasons and a general push toward quantity over quality meant large yields and unripe grapes produced teeth-coating, hair-raising tannins and crackling acidity. Top Barolos, Barbarescos, Brunellos and Chianti Classicos from the time of yore definitely needed decades to soften and become approachable, never mind enjoyable.

Fast-forward 20 years, and Italy is a different wine world: clonal research has produced quality-driven plants that mature more evenly and earlier, and are more resistant to fungal diseases. Better farming practices means producers reduce yields and pick only when grapes have reached ideal ripening, while warmer, drier temperatures help ensure perfect grape maturation. In the cellars, temperature-controlled fermentation and refrigeration have all played a crucial role in improving Italy’s world-class reds.

“Thanks to better vineyard management, better clones and a warmer climate, we now bottle wines with more pronounced fruit and riper tannins than ever before. This means the wines can be enjoyed after four years but are still age-worthy,” declares Pio Boffa, owner of the storied Pio Cesare Barolo house. Boffa is adamant that his wines span that great divide between “drink” and “hold.” While he strongly believes that great Barolo should age well for years, it should also be approachable upon release. “When to drink is a personal opinion. But if you buy my Barolo and have to wait 10 years to drink it, then you should also be able to wait 10 years to pay me.”

Down in Chianti Classico, Emanuela Stucchi-Prinetti, co-owner along with her brother Roberto of the celebrated Badia a Coltibuono estate, has her own idea of the best time to drink the firm’s Riserva. “For Chianti Classico Riserva, we have a policy of keeping a number of bottles at the winery to be released after 10 years,” she says. “As far as general statement, a lot depends on vineyard management, but we can say that wines from the best vintages will live longer and have a slower maturation. In lesser years, when Sangiovese was too stressed, the wines will reach good maturation in about eight years.”

Earlier this month, the Stucchi-Prinettis invited me to a fascinating vertical of their Chianti Classico Riserva, from the 2008 vintage back to the 1946. Several of the older wines were absolutely phenomenal, most notably the vibrant 1949, which still boasted dried cherry and berry flavors, and the still fresh 1946. Although a few vintages in between were already faded, the tasting highlighted not only the incredible aging potential of these wines, but the fact that wine is alive, and like all living creatures, is unpredictable.

Top vintages and ideal storing conditions aside, when do I prefer to drink my collection of Barolos, Barbarescos, Brunello and Chianti Classicos?

Generally speaking, for wines made in top vintages starting at the beginning of this century, I like to open them at the 10 to 15-year mark. This is when tannins have had time to unwind but the wines still retain their freshness and fruit richness, while at the same time they have also developed complexity. My recent tastings of Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello from 2000 (a hot vintage) reveal that many of these wines are already past their prime and are drying up. The 2001 and 2004s on the other hand are gorgeous; they still have the fruit richness of youth and are just beginning to soften and take on their tertiary aromas of tar and leather.

When to open and enjoy a great Italian red is always a personal decision, and while I love tasting Italy’s classic reds from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, I’ve recently tasted wines from these vintages that should have been opened a decade ago, to capture the combination of freshness and complexity.

The good news is you can wait decades if you want to, but you no longer have to.

So grab a 10-year-old Italian classic and enjoy!

Editor Speak is WineMag.com’s weekly sounding board on the world of wine and beyond. Follow #EditorSpeak on Twitter for the latest columns from @WineEnthusiast and our editors >>>


Published on July 23, 2015
Topics: BaroloBrunelloItaly