You might have seen or read about The Marshmallow Test – where 3 and 4 year olds are given the choice of eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting for 15 minutes for 2 marshmallows (apparently it’s supposed to predict future success by way of measuring a child’s ability to delay gratification.) Some kids immediately eat the marshmallow while others use a myriad of tactics to stop themselves eating it (closing their eyes, distracting themselves). Some almost get there, but break in the last few seconds.
I chuckled as I watched it – it’s very relatable, and made me think about how difficult I find it as an adult to deny myself that glass of wine at the end of the day.
As well as it being human nature, I also put this lack of willpower down to much improved wine quality and availability. Since the new world winemaking nations led the charge 25 years ago, with technology designed to ramp up fruit and flavor in their wines, the quality of commercially priced wines has continued to increase globally. Add to this the 24/7 availability of wine – in supermarkets, service stations and off–licenses – and the idea of waiting just seems like unnecessary torture.
Indeed, when it comes to commercial wine – by which I mean larger volume brands, highly distributed brands that are known for good, consistent quality at an affordable price – there’s really no benefit in waiting.
Commercial wines are designed to be consumed within 6–12 months of bottling and their reputations depend on it. Here’s why: In order to provide the value for money consumers demand, these wines are generally produced from over-cropped or marginal vineyard sites where fruit quality can be sub-optimum. As a result, their ‘prime’ is pre-ordained. Like a Pop Idol contestant whose 15 minutes in the limelight is up, the finished product is appealing, but has a limited shelf life. This is not to say we shouldn’t enjoy this ‘everyday’ wine in the here and now. However, there is no place for it in a cellar.
So is there ever a good case to delay gratification when it comes to wine?
Absolutely. Fine wines are an entirely different beast. Their aging potential is instilled from the outset; they are designed to reward us for our patience. Beginning their lives at the raw ingredient stage, with high quality fruit picked at optimum ripeness, the best fine wines are made in a sympathetic way. Suitable closure choice and bottling conditions are prerequisites for all sound wines, but for fine wines, where the bottle is home for many years, it is all the more important. These wines can improve for decades – sometimes 30-40 years – and at their apex show a renewed intensity and vitality that is unlike anything that can be manufactured in a young, commercial wine. It is the elegance of age and well worth waiting for.
Here’s my marshmallow test (of sorts) for wine drinkers: You have been given $50 to buy a current vintage wine to drink this evening. Do you buy a good quality $20 bottle of commercial wine, or a $45 bottle of fine wine? Many wine lovers would sway towards the $45 bottle (and not just because they’re not paying for it) such is the power of placebo. There is no right or wrong answer, but consider this; in their youth, good commercial wines and fine wines are not so different. In fact, in a blind tasting many wine experts would find it difficult to differentiate between them as both are saturated with fermentation and other winemaking-derived flavours for a short period after bottling.
My advice: Unless price tag and/or brand name is your main prerequisite for enjoying a wine, it makes very little sense to buy a fine wine younger than 18 months, if you plan to drink it in the very near future. Fine wines are an investment – you’re paying for the wine’s potential – and like those patient 3 and 4 year olds, only through delayed gratification will you be rewarded.
Some guidance on buying and storing wine
Buying for regular drinking/drinking now
- Good commercial wines are all about uncomplicated and easy to appreciate ‘wine-making’ or secondary flavours (those that are created through specific choices and practices in the winery). Examples are pink grapefruit and passion fruit in Malborough Sauvignon Blanc, cedar and coconut in barrel–aged wines and butterscotch in wines that have seen a secondary (bacteria) fermentation. In commercial wines these secondary flavours recede after 12–18 months and often leave nothing in their place, so always drink commercial wines within 18 months of their vintage to get the best out of them.
- If you can’t cellar wine or don’t have the patience, but have the inclination (and disposable income) to drink fine wine, make sure you seek out aged wines either from specialist wine retailers or direct from renowned wineries, many of whom will have wines with more than 18 months age on them.
Choosing wines to cellar
- Most fine wines only start to show their pedigree after a minimum of 18 months in bottle.
- A fine wine can only become a great wine with time in bottle. Time allows the secondary flavours to transmute into much sought-after tertiary flavours, which are more complex, nuanced and elegant.
- A wine can be expected to age well where it has been made from high quality fruits/sites, in a sympathetic way, bottled in a sound condition, sealed with an effective closure, and stored at 12-14°C(around 55°F) away from light and vibration. It’s worth asking your wine dealer or store for this kind of background information before splashing out.
- Always check oak content. It is a fallacy to think that all expensive wines will age well. In fact, many are masked in so much oak that they will never reveal their true potential.
Knowing when to drink
- A good test of where a wine is in its life is to open a bottle and taste it each day for the next 5 nights. Store in the fridge in between. A wine that still has life left in it will remain fresh – sometimes even better than on first opening – 3-4 days after opening. This can be a useful tool if you are a collector of wines and buy wine by the case, helping you to determine the optimum time to drink the rest of that particular vintage.