by Tim Atkin

In praise of older wines

How long does it take you to drink a bottle of wine once you’ve bought it? A day? A week? A year? I’m not sure how accurate the statistic is, but the word in the wine trade is that nine out of ten bottles are emptied within 48 hours of purchase. Sometimes it’s a lot faster than that. I once saw a bloke in a branch of Kwik Save glugging a litre of Lambrusco before he’d reached the checkout.

It’s not just Brits who believe in speedy consumption. The latest craze in French supermarkets, according to a report on www.drvino.com, is super-sized wine vending machines. The dispensers look like petrol pumps, but instead of diesel, unleaded and four star, they offer a choice of red, white or rosé. You just bring your own container to the store (goat skin, jam jar or plastic bottle) and fill it up with wine. My guess is that very little of it survives the night.

In one sense, of course, we’re only doing what wine drinkers did for centuries. Until the invention of stoppered glass bottles and the widespread use of the preservative sulphur dioxide, most vino was consumed as soon as possible after fermentation, for fear it would turn to vinegar. Fortified wines such as Tawny Port and Madeira, which are deliberately oxidized in barrel, were partly developed to withstand the effects of long sea voyages.

The overwhelming majority of modern wines are made to be drunk quickly. Wine is generally softer, rounder, sweeter and more immediate now than at any point in its history. The move towards approachability began in the New World in the 1970s, but it’s spread to the Old. Even Bordeaux, the region that makes the most cellar-worthy wines on the planet, has followed the trend. Reds that used to take twenty years to soften in bottle are now ready within five.

As a paid up member of the DIY (drink it young) club, I don’t have a problem with this. Not many of us have the patience or interest to squirrel wine away for years. All we want is something to serve with dinner. But I can’t help thinking that we’re missing out on the very thing that makes wine unique: its ability to develop complexity over time. I’ve had my share of shagged out disappointments over the years, pulled from my cellar past their sell-by date, but my most memorable wines have all been more than ten years old.

I’m not suggesting you invest thousands of pounds in cases of vintage claret or dig a cellar in your back garden. But why not put half a dozen bottles of the same in a wine rack (provided it’s not near a source of heat or vibration) and leave them there for a year or two? Open one every few months to taste how it’s changed. Almost without knowing it, you’ll become a wine collector.

The popular misconception is that only expensive wines are worth laying down. It’s true that there isn’t much point in cellaring £3.99 plonk, but if you’re prepared to spend between £7.50 and £25, you’re in business. To make it easier, I’ve chosen six red wines to get you started. Kicking the 48-hour habit may require some will power, but your patience will be repaid.

THE WINES

2009 Plan de Dieu Côtes du Rhône Villages (£7.49, 14.5%, Marks & Spencer)
In honour of international Grenache day tomorrow, why not pop a bottle of this spicy, concentrated, sun-kissed Rhône in your wine rack?

2007 Ravenswood Lodi Zinfandel (£8.99, 14.5%, Sainsbury’s)
The Lodi region of California is the source of some of my favourite Zins. This combines notes of tobacco, plums and figs with sweet vanilla oak.

2007 Prominent Hill Single Vineyard Shiraz, Adelaide Hills (£12.99, 13.5%, Waitrose)
If you think Aussie Shiraz is all about power and concentration, try this elegant, peppery, barbecue-scented red from the Adelaide Hills.

2007 Rocca Alata Amarone della Valpolicella (£14.99, 14.5%, selected Tesco stores)
Made from dried corvina, rondinella and molinara grapes, this raisiny, strawberryish Veneto red is rich and complex with a spicy finish.

2007 Pesquera Crianza, Ribera del Duero (£14.99 each for two, 13%, Majestic)
Well priced for one of Ribera’s top reds, this needs another two years for its cedarwood oak, blackberry fruit and medium-weight tannins to integrate.

2005 Tassinaia Castello del Terriccio (£22.95, 13.5%, Lea & Sandeman, www.londonfinewine.co.uk)
A stylish Tuscan blend of sangiovese, cabernet and merlot. Cassis, black cherry, green pepper and Mediterranean herbs are beautifully entwined here.

Originally published in The Times