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Wine Q&A: Best To Leave ‘Sleeping’ Wines on the Rack

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SleepingWineQ. Have you heard the term used that a wine is “asleep”? Is this just another way of saying it has lost flavor, or has it gone bad?

A. When some fine wines hit “adolescence,” they can act like any teenager.  They are no longer youngsters, showing those fresh vibrant flavors, but they haven’t mellowed to maturity either.  That wine might be unpredictable, maybe even “surly,” a word wine expert Jancis Robinson uses. It might close up, too, meaning it loses aroma or fragrance.  Some just say that the wine is “asleep,” or going through its dull period.

We use the term “fine wine” here because these are generally purchased for a good bit of money, then cellared until they are mature — that case of 2000 Bordeaux you bought, for example. In the process of maturing from young and vibrant to older and full of character, it might pass through a dull phase.

So, back to that teenaged wine.  What’s a poor parent – meaning you, the wine bottle’s owner – to do?  How can you know when a fine wine has reached this stage, especially if you have only one bottle? It’s not as though you can uncork it for a test, decide “yup, it’s surly” and close it up again until its temper improves.

We asked our resident wine guy, Cecil Flentge, to share his views on this matter.  Basically, there’s not much to do, unless you happen to have a case — or even three or four bottles of this vintage in your cellar, he says.  If you have several bottles and opened another bottle of the same wine, same vintage some months before and it tasted fine, and the next bottle you open is dull, you may have a sleeping wine. So, let that third bottle lie awhile.

What if that wine isn’t really asleep? “There are so many other little variables that could be happening to that wine. I worry that it might be corked (affected by a chemical compound which causes loss of flavor and a bad taste) or oxidized,” says Flentge. Again, the only way to know is to give it another year or so (if you have another bottle) and see what happens.  If it is a winemaker you trust, and the word about the vintage in the wine press has been good, give it a chance.

Also, keep your ears open around wine aficionados and you might hear words like, “Yes, that such and such Chateau Petrus is drinking very well right now.” Again, the wine isn’t drinking any more than it’s sleeping.  This is just code for people who A) read this in Decanter, or B) want you to know that they have cases of the stuff and have been sampling it all along so as to announce its drinkability at just the right moment.  Or, it may be C) they just happen to know what they’re talking about.

In our society these days, we tend to buy single bottles and consume them quickly after their purchase. Winemakers know this and it does influence the kind of product they sell.  In fact, the whole matter of wine going through a “dumb” stage was probably far more an issue in years gone by than it is now. In days gone by, the gentry who could afford fine wine would lay in many cases, keeping it in the cellar until it was deemed ready to drink.  If a bottle was opened too soon, and it appeared to be asleep, then they might make a mental note (or chew out their personal cellar master) to leave that vintage alone for another year or two.

For the rest of us, the question is mostly academic — but possibly good information to keep in a dusty corner of your brain, should your wealthy aunt die and leave you her wine cellar.

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