How to prepare a 20 year old red wine for drinking

“Just open it and drink it,” many of you would say.  But a 20 year old iconic red wine certainly deserves more care and ceremony than that!  A number of seemingly small steps can make the difference between the wine being ‘passable’ and exceptional.  And it only takes a few more minutes to make it exceptional, so you would be foolhardy if you did not give it a chance!

Granted, the wine will be good or ‘not good’ mostly based on how it has been stored for the last 20 years and what has happened with the micro-oxidation that has gone on in the bottle during that time.  This will be heavily influenced by the cork quality and if it has been faithful or not.

While you are no longer in control of the previous storage or the cork quality, there are four things you have control over in preparing the wine for drinking, all which may influence if the wine is suitable or not:

  • Removing wine from cellar / storage, stand up-right and let rise to room temperature
  • Choosing to use an Ah So cork remover as the cork will be fragile (any cork after 12 – 15 years tends to become saturated and soggy (unless the cork grain is very tight) and is at risk of breaking apart.  See picture in my post ‘A disappointment, but one moves on!’) of a crumbled cork from a 17 year old bottle of wine.)
  • Decanting the wine, avoiding the use of a filter or aerator if possible.  If required, use a filter, but never an aerator for a 20 year old wine
  • Let decant for only 30 – 60 minutes.  Then re-bottle if not already consumed, and  consuming the wine within several hours

You should remove the wine 3 – 12 hours before you plan on opening it.  By allowing it to come to room temperature slowly before opening the bottle will put less stress on the wine as you decant it.  And standing it up allows any free sediment to settle to the bottom of the bottle, potentially removing the need to filter the wine while decanting.

Perfectly preserved cord after 20 years!

The Ah So cork remover is far better for delicate corks than more traditional cork screws as it provides a grip on the outside of the cork (instead of drilling down through a soft cork center) and also ensures the cork has been ‘twisted’ to separate the cork from the bottle.  Over time, the sugar in wine can crystallize, attaching the cork to the bottle and make it difficult to separate and remove.

Now if you have no sediment and no cork floating in the wine, you can decant slowly without using a filter or aerator.  If you do have some indication of sediment or cork, then use a filter but not an aerator.  The structure of an older wine becomes very fragile and will start to separate in a short period of time, further losing fruit flavor and its integrated texture, and an aerator worsen this effect noticeably.  (While I am a big fan of aerating most wines, never aerate a ‘museum’ wine.

Let the wine decant for a short period of time, maybe 30 – 60 minutes.  This old a wine does not usually require much more air to make it ready to drink.  You usually just want to get any older smells entrapped in the bottle out and let the wine breath a little.  If you are not going to drink the wine immediately, then re-bottle it, but make sure to consume within several hours.  This old a bottle of wine will not last the day without some deterioration.

There are a few exceptions to this rule for very robust, built to last wines, but this is the general rule.  You can test a sip or two every 15 minutes to see if the wine continues to improve or not and once it shows no further sign of improvement, then re-bottle.  Some wines such as an older Penfold Grange and the 1987 Lindeman Pyrus require a long time to decant to reach maximum potential.

I used the above process to open a bottle of the 1992 Lindemans Pyrus.  This is a beautifully-aged wine made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.  This type of blend has great potential to last a long time and beautifully mature in terms of the complexity and integration of flavors.  Thanks to the cork being in perfect condition, the wine is exquisite!  It would have been slightly better 3 – 5 years ago and has lost just a touch of its fruit flavors, but still very flavorful.  It has big plum flavors with a trace of tobacco which I really enjoy in an aged red wine.

The structure of the wine has held up well, but is fragile and will not last long.  Therefore, I need to drink this wine today.  I am craving a pizza to go with it, or some nice lamb, but we planned to have leftover black bean soup, some corn-on-the-cob, and a salad for dinner.  But it seems almost sinful to have this great wine with a spicy black bean soup!

Cheese/meat plate with 1992 Lindemans Pyrus and Rockmellon

Therefore, we decided to make a last moment change (as the soup, salad and corn-on-the-cob will last until tomorrow) and made up a cheese and salami / prosciutto plate instead which will suffice for dinner and be more enjoyable with the wine than black bean soup!

I am now 2/3rds the way through the bottle (and finished with this post!), so you do not need to be concerned if I finish the wine today or not!

[Post-writing update:  I stand corrected.  I saved the other 1/3 rd of the bottle for a day later, and it was still surprisingly good.  If a wine is very well crafted such as the 1992 Lindemans Pyrus was, then there is less of a concern about it deteriorating quickly.  This wine is still a star the day after opening!]

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