The short answer is that it really depends on the wine.
In general, white wines should be enjoyed within a few years of their vintage. However, some winemakers create whites designed to be cellared, sometimes for decades. Examples include Rieslings with high levels of acidity with the ability to retain their structure while also developing many nuanced aromas and flavors only found in aged wines. White wines aged for an extended period in oak barrels, such as Chardonnay, can also improve with time in the cellar.
Some red wines, such as Beaujolais nouveau, are made specifically to be enjoyed when the wine is young. Most reds can withstand a few years tucked away on their sides in a cool, dark space. This ensures the corks don’t dry out, preventing excess air from getting in and spoiling the wines. Other red wines are created specifically to be aged, allowing more complex, layered flavors to develop and the tannins to better integrate. These wines are more expensive and often tout their ageability on the back label.
Many sparkling wines aren’t really designed to be cellared for more than a decade. Real Champagne, from France, is an exception. With a decade or two of proper cellaring, a well-structured Champagne with high acidity will retain its bubbles and also develop into what can taste like an entirely different wine.
Dessert wines, including Port and Sherry, are fortified with brandy and thereby preserved with the extra alcohol. Some can be aged over fifty years. Wines made with botrytized grapes, such as Sauternes, are also quite age-worthy, evolving into something spectacular after twenty years in the bottle.
Buying and cellaring
When buying wine, whether at a winery, wine shop, or grocery store, ask how long it can be aged. Cellar it in a cool, dark location, like a closet, or invest in a wine refrigerator. Be sure to lay your aging wine on its side or upside down so the liquid touches the cork. Otherwise, the cork will dry out and crack, allowing air into the bottle, slowly turning your precious wine into vinegar. Cellaring wines for a special occasion can be addictive so don’t be surprised if your wine collection begins to grow!
Michele Francisco, a founder and regular contributor to Winerabble, a blog primarily about Pacific Northwest wines, is living the dream in Portland, Oregon. Her passion leads some to believe she's got wine running through her veins. Contact Michele at firstname.lastname@example.org & be sure to visit her online portfolio at www.michelefrancisco.com.