How to Open Old Wine
Opening old wines can present challenges. What should you do if the cork breaks? How can you tell if it is still good to drink? All this is usually coupled with the extra pressure of a group of guests looking on, waiting to sample a glass. I’ve put together my failsafe tips to take the guesswork out of opening bottles you have patiently cellared, or that are just special to you, to make sure your wine gets from the bottle to your glass in the best condition possible.
What makes a bottle special?
Sure, an expensive or a very old bottle qualifies as a special bottle, but I think a wine can be meaningful for many reasons. It could be a wine that you’ve never tried but you’re heard lots about from a mate. Perhaps it’s an old favourite that you’ve had on many occasions that you know is always dependable and delicious. Maybe it’s a wine that was just delivered to your door from your favourite cellar door. Or it could even be a cheap and cheerful quaffer that reminds you of your grandma. What all these wines have in common is that there is a story behind them that means something to you. When you open them, you are reminded of those times or that person. To me, what makes wine so special is its ability to get people talking and sharing memories.
When should you open your special bottle?
I think Global Open That Bottle Night (OTBN), held every year on the last Saturday in February, is a great initiative that encourages people to open that significant bottle that they’ve had sitting in their wine rack waiting for a big occasion to uncork it. But I also think life is too short to let good wine spoil by waiting too long to drink it. All wines have a certain drinking window, that is a period of time when it will be at its best. Once it gets past this point it can taste flat and dull. You don’t want this to happen while you wait for the perfect time to drink it. My favourite time to open a special bottle is when it is just my wife Meg and I at home, having dinner and enjoying each other’s company. Of course, opening your birth-year wine on a milestone birthday or popping the cork on a top bottle of Champagne at your daughter’s wedding (I imagine) is pretty hard to top, but my point is a great wine can make even a simple night in special.
How to open an aged bottle of red
Naturally, my tips on how open an old bottle focuses on reds – they are what Redman is famous for. For reds up to 10 years old, I open and decant the wine for 30-60 minutes before drinking it. If you want to learn why decanting is important, read our blog Why use a wine decanter? If you don’t have a decanter, open the bottle an hour before you want to pour its and just let it sit. This is especially important for cabernets as it allows oxygen to mix with the wine enhancing the aromas and softening the tannins.
When I open a red that is 10-plus years old, I take it out of the rack and stand it upright to allow any sediment to settle at the bottom of the bottle before I open it. Then I gently pour the wine through a tea strainer or pantyhose into a decanter, leaving the sediment in the bottle. Some purists like to pour the decanted wine back into the original bottle after it has been rinsed clean. That way they can impress their guests as they can see the year on the label and read the back label.
A double lever corkscrew, also known as a waiter’s friend, is my weapon of choice to remove old corks and if it starts to crumble, I just push the cork into the wine. Trying to gently coax out a broken cork is just a waste of time. I then use my trusty tea strainer or pantyhose to remove any fragments of cork as well as any sediment. You’d never know you had any problems with the cork.
How can you tell if an old wine is good to drink?
You may see crystals on the cork of an aged wine. Don’t panic, these are tartrate crystals, a sign acid has dropped out of the wine, which happens as a wine ages. They don’t affect the taste of the wine. However, you may come across a bottle ruined by cork taint or TCA. Check for this by giving the wine a good sniff. If it smells of wet hessian I’ve got bad news for you – sadly, decanting won’t remove this smell and your bottle isn’t good to drink. If you’re lucky enough to have a back-up bottle of the same wine, open that and hope the cork god’s are smiling on you. Thankfully, this is a problem associated with old wine, cork taint is not as big a problem as it used to be. Today’s corks can be trusted!
The next thing to do is look at the colour of your wine. Is it still red or is it really brown? If it has turned brown it’s a good idea to have a good sniff and a taste to work out if it is drinkable.
Like all wine, what matters most is that you are enjoying the glass in front of you. It could be the most expensive bottle you own or a wine from a stellar vintage that has been perfectly cellared, but if you don’t like it, that’s ok. Wine is a very personal thing. Go find a replacement, I suggest a bottle of Redman – you won’t have any problems with that – and enjoy.