Saving a bottle for just the right occasion

No YaksWednesday was our fourth wedding anniversary, and to celebrate we went to California and drank a a lot of wine last weekend. However, on the actual date we visited one of our favorite restaurants, Killen’s Steakhouse. At Killen’s we split the amazing hunk of meat that they feature on the front of their Web site, a 32 oz dry-aged Kobe long bone-in ribeye. This may have been the single greatest steak that I have ever eaten. Amy was a little less impressed with it, but she is not quite as enthusiastic about bleeding hunks of fatty beef as I am.

We paired that with a very nice Bordeaux from Pauillac, the 2005 Chateau Haut-Bages-Libéral. While still young and a little tight, it was still a very enjoyable wine, and a very successful pairing. In fact, the tightness actually worked well with the high fat content of the Kobe beef, and I think the subtlety of the Bordeaux was a much better match than a big Cab or Syrah would have been. Despite being quite full, Killen’s desserts are not to be missed, so when our excellent server (whose name I regrettably have not remembered) kindly proffered the menu, we did not refuse. Hell, how many fourth anniversaries do one couple get?

We ordered their delicious Creme Brulee, and after a lengthy and enjoyable consultation with their very helpful Sommelier and General Manager, whose name I also neglected to write down or remember, we paired it with an off the menu Cream Sherry. Again, it was a pretty successful pairing. The sweetness of the sherry initially matched nicely with the flavor of the dessert, then the alcohol cut through the richness but temporarily overwhelmed the creme brulee, but the finish was a perfect match. The caramel flavors of the sherry melded perfectly with the caramelized sugar crust to create a flavor that, to me, tasted like a grown up version of the way I remember cotton candy tasting as a small child. It was a perfect finish, as far as I was concerned.

Amy, however, was not yet finished. She had a bottle of vintage Champagne that she had been saving for a special occasion and had decided that this was it. Between the rich food and the wine, I was pretty much sated, but was not about to turn down some good Champagne, so as soon as we got home I started chilling it down. As the food and wine induced semi-coma state began to fade, we started to anticipate how good the crisp, clean bubbly was going to taste.

The wine in question was a 1993 Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay. Not a spectacular vintage, but I had read that it was becoming more so with a little age on it. As someone not known for his patience, I get few opportunities to drink aged wines, so I was looking forward to trying this one. In case you are wondering how it had survived so long while in lose proximity to an oaf  like me, Amy had won this bottle at an event at a local Houston wine bar called “The Tasting Room” and it already had some age on it when we got it. She then did a remarkable job of protecting it from my bad intentions until Wednesday.

After it was chilled, Amy got out a couple of flutes and I opened the bottle. My first clue that something was amiss was when I noticed that there was a little dark residue on my hand as I put down the cork. Uh oh. I hoped that it was not a bad sign and picked the cork back up. The wet end was dark and not very pleasant looking. Uh oh. I tried to delude myself that this might just be a result of the aging process, and poured the wine into the glasses. It was a much darker color than I expected. Uh oh. Again, I deluded myself into believe that, as white wine is apt to do when it ages, it was just a result of the aging process.

Next I apprehensively picked up the glass for a sniff and recoiled from the sharp vinegary smell reminiscent of Olorosa sherry. UH OH! Still, who knows, it could still be good, right? So I took a sip. Shit. It was seriously oxidized. As the nasty taste subsided I got a hint of how good it should have been, so I took another sip hoping it was bearable, but alas it was about as palatable as I imagine yak urine would be. Sadly our special bottle was deader than Elvis.

How did this happen? My guess is that it happened well before it came into our possession and was the result of improper storage. Oxidation occurs when oxygen is combined with a catalyst of some sort. In the case of wine, the catalysts are metal ions and, most often, phenols.  When oxygen combines with phenolic compounds the result is hydrogen peroxide.

Where do these compounds come from? The metals are pulled from the soil that the grapes are grown in when the roots pull in water. The phenols come from a variety of sources during the wine making process. The stems, seeds, and skins of the grapes produce phenols, or more accurately, poly-phenols, in the form of tannins. There are also phenols that are pulled from oak barrels. While they may have been accomplices in the ruination of our bottle, phenols are what provide al lot of the color and flavor of wine, so they are not the real villains here. No, as I have already stated, poor storage is probably to blame.

Wine needs to be stored at relatively low, constant temperatures, in an area that is free of odor, direct sunlight, and vibration. It also is critical that wines be stored in a manner that allows the corks to remain moist. That last point is the most likely culprit in the case of our sparkling yak urine. If a cork is allowed to dry, it begins to shrink, which in turn allows oxygen to knock boots with phenols and metal ions of ill-repute and produce their bastard offspring H2O2 molecules.

Which brings us to the title of this post. Most of us are not in the position to properly cellar wine. That makes saving bottles for just the right occasion a very risky proposition. Without the near perfect conditions provided by a well designed wine cellar storing wine for any amount of time is a crap shoot. Even then, like that soulful eyed mutt at the pound, there is no accounting for how much abuse your bottle endured prior to being entrusted to your loving care.

One way to avoid this would be to just buy something special for special occasions. If it is bad it is not your fault and a full refund should be easy to obtain, which is not the case if you bought it and stored it for any amount of time. Simple, but quite expensive if you want anything with some age on it. The other option, other than to build a cellar or pay someone to store it for you, is to gamble with it.

Like with all gambling, there are ways to increase your odds. In the case of gambling with wine storage you can increase your odds quite considerably in your favor. Provided that you received the bottle in good condition, here are some ways to help make sure that you avoid having your wine turn into something that tastes like the waste product of semi-exotic bovine creatures.

  • Never store your wine on top of the refrigerator no matter how many times you see it done in some dumbass home design magazine.
  • Kitchens are terrible places to store wine. They typically contain everything necessary to ruin wine; lots of light, a variety of odors, vibrations and variable temperatures.
  • Always store your bottles on their sides, preferable in a solid, sturdy wine rack.
  • Try to store your bottles in a little used room, shades drawn and as cool as possible.
  • If you are trying to be a collector, build a cellar or rent a wine storage area.
  • If you are not a collector, do not try and keep bottles too long. Remember, you are a gambler, and what happens to gamblers who stay too long at the table? They lose.

As our sad tale demonstrates, when Open That Bottle Night rolls around keep in mind that any occasion instantly becomes special when a special wine is shared. So, my suggestion is to have plenty of your own Open That Bottle Nights. Special bottles are much more enjoyable if they turn to piss after being consumed than if you let them do so in the bottle.

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