The Life Span of Wine
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed January 23, 2002. For more information go to www.wineloverspage.com.
Most of the time I enjoy answering wine-related questions. But one topic that evokes a twinge of sadness in place of a smile comes fairly regularly from readers who have found an ancient bottle or have been happily keeping a treasured item for many years, and now hope to cash in on it in a big way.
More often than not, it's my unhappy duty to advise them that their treasure is probably worthless and most likely undrinkable.
Like the biblical Methuselah, it's possible for a wine to live long past its expected life span. But as a practical matter, most wines are meant to be drunk up while they are young and fresh; and the few ageworthy "collectibles" require careful cellaring at controlled temperatures to show their best over time.
The big-money bottles are generally from the Bordeaux "first growths" and other top-rated properties whose wines have a long track record of longevity and increasing value in the cellar.
So, if you can't sell your antique wine, can you at least enjoy it? More bad news: Expecting an everyday wine to live into its second or third decade is something like hoping your pet dog or cat will live into its 30s: It's not absolutely impossible, but mighty unlikely; and the poor little fellow would really be showing his years.
But ancient wine never turns toxic or unhealthful, so it can't hurt you to try it. If you're adventurous, you might want to pull the cork. Be prepared for that cork to be soft and fragile, and take care not to stir up any sediment. It's a good idea to carefully "decant" the wine - pour it off the sediment - before serving. And don't even consider giving an ancient wine any time to "breathe." In the unexpected case that there's any life in it, it probably won't hold for long after pouring.
Be prepared for it to be brown, dull and muddy, uninteresting at best and actively repulsive at worst. But if you're lucky, a very old wine may offer an intriguing if brief symphony of complex, earthy aromas and flavors.
In spite of all the above, if you have an old bottle and believe it may be of value, we offer several resources that may help you find comparative prices and values for collectible bottles.
Click for links to some databases of retail and auction wine prices.