To drink, or not to drink...

Fine wine manager Shaun Kiernan

that is the question

Fine wine manager Shaun Kiernan sheds some light on the meaning of drinking windows and how to decide when best to pull the cork

When to drink wines held in Reserves (or understair cupboards) is the question we get asked most often through our wine advice e-mail service. There isn't a scientific answer I'm afraid, and when I give advice to members I often say it's about your personal preference. I can provide a guide, but I might like wines at a different stage of maturity compared to the next person.

I know I'm lucky as I often get to try wines at different stages of maturity; very young wines, those with a few years' ageing and, if I'm very lucky, wines that are fully mature. But working out your own preference for mature wines is part of the fun of laying them down in the first place. I recently had real pleasure and excitement when I took from Reserves a case of mid-range 2003 clarets. I have been drinking them over the last year and every bottle has been super. I have tended to decant them early, three to four hours in advance of serving, and then watch them develop over the course of the evening. The wines are roughly mid-way through the drinking window that we provided. I could have taken a few bottles out at a time with our part-withdrawal facility option (which allows you to take out up to four different wines from stored unmixed dozens) but I gambled on all the wines being ready. I was interested to see if the wines already showed a lot of maturity as 2003 was an extremely hot vintage and I was worried that they may not have kept as well as some of the more classic vintages with more acidity. I need not have worried. I know I have hit them at the right time for my taste, at 12 years old; still young enough to have plenty of fruit, but old enough for the wines to have shed some tannin and have sweetened up. Experience tells me, though, that red wines will happily last well after the recommended drink date too and can provide a lot of fun charting them as they grow old gracefully. So, my advice would be to always take advantage of opportunities to try wines that you think may be well over the hill; after all you may be pleasantly surprised and if not, they can always be added to the gravy!

Fine wines on the rack

Ultimately, it's up to you when to pull the cork as only you will know what you like. But as this can take some practice we provide a guide by assigning 'drink windows', giving an indication as to when we think the wines will be at their best. If you prefer fresh, crunchy fruit flavours, err towards the start of the drinking window; for more earthy, mellow flavour, leave a little longer. En Primeur offers (where wines are offered for sale before they have been bottled) are a very easy way to start a small collection of wine. This is how I started, buying a case or two a year of wines at the cheaper end of the scale and then taking them out of Reserves years later; it is very exciting to see how they have developed. I tend to buy mixed cases from the Rhône or Bordeaux where cases often start at around £70 for wines which will happily keep for five to 15 years. This is a great way to start a cellar and begin to understand at what stage of maturity you like your wines.

Please don't hesitate to contact us if you'd like advice as to when to pull the cork on a particular bottle. You can do this online at thewinesociety.com/advice or by contacting Member Services.

Drink windows for past en primeur offer wines (from 2000) can be found on our website and drink dates for specific wines can also be found under the 'My Wines' section of the website which provides drink dates on wines you have bought going back to 2009. There's more information on en primeur offers here.

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