The longer you make wine kits, the more you’re likely to notice that even if you’re sure you’ll never drink 30 bottles of wine, they will soon vanish anyway. Between doling them out to friends or using them at parties or other special occasions, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll use up your wine. And sooner than you expect, you’ll be dashing out to make another kit because you’ve run out.
The solution, of course, is to build up a cellar of properly aged wines that you can count on having around when you need them. This involves a bit of cellar planning and some extra winemaking, but by the time you’re done, not only will you never run out of wine again, you’ll always have the right wine, ready to drink, at your fingertips.
Even though there are general guidelines about the ageing of wine, the only real way to know when your wine will peak, and when you’ll need to make more batches, is by observing the typical course your own wine takes as it ages. This requires that you make enough volume of a wine that you can taste bottles from the same batch, every couple of months, over the course of several years, recording your impressions every time. That alone justifies making those 30 bottles. And eventually, armed with your observations and a few hints below, you’ll be able to plan both for any impending drinking season, and also for the long-term.
Even if you don’t have time to wait a couple of years while you sort out a proper cellar, you can still get prepared by making judicious choices when you make your first wines. You can even plan things so that if you don’t have exactly the ‘right’ wine for an occasion, you’ll have something that will work as a substitute.
How Long to Age
Before discussing cellar plans, you need to recall that even when a wine is ready to bottle, that doesn’t mean it’s ready to drink. After all, when you visit a wine store, you see that even the least expensive bottles are at least a year old, and anything more upscale is two, three or more years of age. Commercial wines are intended to be drunk within hours of being sold, so the proper ageing is done before they hit the shelves. Home winemakers have the ‘disadvantage’ that they have their wine on hand right after it’s made. But it, too, must go through a certain degree of ageing. One-month old wine is not aged. It’s barely settled down into the bottle, much less had time to shed its youthful roughness, esters, and any unpleasant aromas.
Fortunately, most kit wines have an edge for ageing time. This is because as a general rule, the lower the level of dissolved solid material in a wine, the faster it will age. Most kits are made from juice that’s been well clarified, and after fermenting, they undergo a fairly aggressive fining regimen. This ensures that there aren’t a lot of solids to settle out and calm down before the aroma and bouquet of the wine can develop. Lower solids can, in some cases, limit the ultimate potential of the kit to achieve true greatness, so there are certain trade-offs, but for the most part, the wine will age well for your tastes.
However, you will notice that there are variations among the kits in size, price, processing times and levels of dissolved solids. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger and more expensive a wine kit is, the longer it takes to make, and the greater the amount of solids it has. This means, in turn, that its ageing time will be longer, but it will also have greater potential to achieve high levels of flavour and aroma.
Standard kits, with a moderate amount of total solids, are usually ready to bottle in a month or so, taste a little less rough on bottling day, and improve pretty well for at least a year. They level off sometime after that, but hold for a significant time before going into any kind of decline. They may trade a bit of long term development for early drinkability, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re beginning with a bare cellar.
Premium kits, much larger, with more single-strength (unconcentrated) juice and more solids, usually require 6 weeks or more before they can be bottled. While they are less ready to drink immediately, they improve steadily for more than a year, and can really reward long-term ageing.
Super-Premium kits are usually the largest volume, are sometimes region- or vineyard-designated and are pretty much at the top of the price-point for kits. They don’t show very well on bottling day, but they really pick up steam after a year, and most only really show their best after a couple of years or more.
Wine from fresh grape have the highest levels of solid material, are uncommunicative until one day, after what may feel like an interminable wait, they open up in a surprising way. Unless you use an extremely aggressive fining and filtering regimen, the majority of grape wines (especially reds) are going to be fairly undrinkable for the first couple of years.
Keep three things in mind about these general summaries of ageing factors. First of all, it’s hard to predict precisely how your kit wine will age. As mentioned above, there are trade-offs between ageing and early drinkability. Remember also that as cellaring conditions vary, people’s wines will also vary in how they age. So the above summaries are only meant to be very general guides.
Secondly, there will be a different ageing potential for every company’s wine kit products. Some manufacturers place a high value on smooth, early drinking, and some favour a house style that tends towards longer ageing, which rules out a dinner party on bottling day.
Thirdly, you’ll notice a confluence of all of the wines at about three months. This is because the standard kits will have developed quite a bit of their final flavours in that time, and the premium and super-premium kits will have dropped quite a bit of their initial rough, green character. If you absolutely have to drink your wine early, try to wait at least 3 months before passing any kind of judgement on it.
Which Wines to Make
Of course, the basic approach is to make the wines you like to drink. But when you are kitting out a cellar, you’ll very likely want to have an array of different wines for different purposes, and probably enough wines to cover a number of different menu choices as well. There are a few basic rules and recommendations about having a selection of light, medium and heavy whites and reds to fill out your cellar, not forgetting a bit of blush wines, port, sherry and sparkling.
And there are also some rules of thumb if you tend to eat more of one type of food than another. For example, if you’re a vegetarian, you will need fewer heavy, tannic red wines in your cellar for food matching. If you’re a big meat-eater, concentrate on the big reds. If you enjoy light dining on the patio, don’t skip the off-dry wines like Riesling, Gewürztraminer or ‘Mist’ wines, and the blush. And if you’re a fisherman, be sure to have plenty of crisp whites and a good Pinot Noir for salmon or grilled cetacean. Keep the everyday needs of your table in mind when you plan your cellar.
If you’re not sure which wines to make, or you want to cover all of your bases, you can fill out a very decent cellar by making just five whites and five reds:
Rosé/Blush (off-dry to medium)
Pinot Gris, Grigio or Blanc
Riesling or Gewürztraminer
Bergamais (Beaujolais) or Pinot Noir
Sangiovese (Chianti) or Valroza (Valpolicella)
Nebbiolo (Barolo) or Zinfandel
Cabernet or Merlot
Zinfandel or Shiraz
The multiple choices are for your personal taste: Riesling and Gewürztraminer, or Zinfandel and Shiraz are distinctly different varietals, but they carry about the same weight and intensity levels overall, so you can choose your favourites. These ten wines will carry you through almost any meal choice as well as everyday sipping, but they’re not the only choices you can make. Your cellar should be a playground for your palate, not a prison for your expectations!
Planning for Properly Aged Wine
Ageing is the key to adding more aroma, flavour, character and especially quality to your wines. A lot of home winemakers find they are drinking the last bottle of a batch just as it’s perfectly aged and most enjoyable – suggesting that the previous 25 or so bottles from that batch might have had less perfection than desired. There are two ways to get ahead of the curve and build up some nicely aged wines.
The first method involves a little math, discipline, and investment. If you can discipline yourself to follow it, you’ll find that it will pay off.
- Determine how much wine you’re going to use in one year. This includes your daily glasses with dinner, weekend parties, friends dropping by, birthdays, anniversaries, the holiday weekend, housewarming presents, your thirsty brother-in-law, and so on. Let’s say that this number averages to about three bottles per week.
- Multiply your weekly consumption by 52, so in the above example, the total would be 156.
- Add 15‑20% for unexpected wine emergencies; these will inevitably occur. In this case, that means adding 25 or 30 bottles. Rounding the total to 180 bottles, this works out to about six 23-litre (6-US gallon) batches in a year.
- Make double your yearly expected consumption, in as short a period as possible, ideally all within one or two months. That’s 12 batches all in one fell swoop. Put half of the wine away in your cellar, and leave it. Drink the other half as young wine, as you need it.
At the end of one year you can start opening those fully aged bottles, and enjoy the tremendous improvement that good cellaring can bring. On the anniversary date of your big batch, make another 6 batches, all at once, and put them at the back of your cellar. Naturally, when you first start, you’ll need both the space, the equipment, and the money to make a dozen batches of wine all at once.
The second way of filling your cellar is a little easier: get a second carboy and double up your batches every time you make wine. Bottle one for your use, and put the other in the cellar. Staying on a regular schedule will maximize your use of equipment. Don’t leave your carboys idle after you’ve finished using them for a previous batch. Over the course of a year, you should be able to get at least an extra 6 batches salted away for ageing, and make a good start on your cellar.
This article previously published September 2012, provided by WinExpert.