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Cabernet Sauvignon is a varietal more suitable for aging, but are the any general guidelines for the ideal age, or is it highly variable?

Specifically I'm interested in finding out if there are general rules around how long after bottling before you should drink it, and how long it can stay in the bottle before you should drink it. And if the guidelines are variable, what are some of the factors that come into play?

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Way variable. On the high end even from year to year the same vineyard and same grape will vary how long to hold. When it is released the vineyard and others will have a recommendation. On the shelf at the liquor store is often ready to drink. High end wine that is going to be put up is often bought out before it even hits the shelves. Some wine that still needs to age does hit the shelfs.

Wineries will typically hold some back to mature. Follow when they release it. But that often goes to high end restaurants.

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Being a former winemaker, Cabernet can made in a variety of styles from cheap Trader Joes Cabernet ready to drink the day you buy it, to Napa Valley cabs that won't soften up for at least a decade. In fact, I've had 20 year old cabs that were still so tannic, I don't think they would ever soften up.

From a winemaking perspective, usually I found that wines taste flat for several months after bottling. I think the introduction of Oxygen (not necessarily a bad thing) at bottling time alters the wine for a while, but with age things start to level out. For a high quality cab, I would wait a year after bottling for things to come around and you can taste full flavors. BUT, that doesn't really mean the wine is ready to drink. Usually several years after bottling cabs start to soften their tannins and become much more approachable. Not everyone likes that though, many people like a younger fruitier wine. YMMV.

This is for wine that is stored in a temperature controlled environment and not on your kitchen counter. Heat makes the process speed up but not necessarily in a good way.

There are no hard and fast rules about when you drink a wine. I would error on the side of drinking sooner than later because it's possible to get vinegar or a corked wine the longer you wait. If you have several bottles of the same wine. Sample one every couple of years until you think they are ready.

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Yes, I have the general simple rule you are looking for: Price.

The cheaper a wine is (especially for Cabernet), the earler you should drink it. But there are some underlying explanations to explain why.

Cabernet Sauvignon is built for ageing. It has very thick skin, high levels of acidity, and low sugar content. For ageing, tannins are good, acidity is good, and too much alcohol can be bad. The sugar in Cabernet Sauvignon has an alcohol potential of about 12.5%, against 14.5% for Merlot.

Tannins and acidity need time to soften, that is why a normal Cabernet wine from a respectable winery should need 2-4 years before it can be appreaciated, and reach its peak in 5-10 years.

The lifespan is shorter for lighter wines, for example in vintages where it rained a lot, the wine can be diluted and age a lot quicker. In these conditions the bottle may reach its peak in less than 3 years. This is also true for industrial wines who do not want to take risks and do not wait long enough for the grapes to mature, giving very light wines. If you look at Bordeaux wines, a 2010 tastes younger than a 2013. Because 2010 was hot and 2013 was very wet.

Over the years, wineries have developed some techniques to push the ageing potential further:

  • In the Vineyard: Planting vines in higher density (going up to 10000 plants per hectare in the Medoc region), performing green harvests, using only old vines, to get more fruit concentration.
  • In the Wine Cellar: Some techniques are used to extract the grapes and concentrate the wine even more. Pre-fermentation cold maceration has become a popular practice for example. Or some more extreme things exist, like reverse osmosis, which is used in some top Bordeaux Chateaux to extract water out of the wine. The less water there is, and the more dry matter it has, the more ageing potentiel it gets.
  • In the Ageing Cellar: Top red wines all over the world are aged in new oak barrels during nearly 2 years. Oak adds new types of tannins and anti-oxydants to the wine. This increases ageing potential a lot.

Cabernet Sauvignon is especially famous for its affinity for Oak. The Oak softens the Cabernet tannins while adding more of its own extra soft tannin flavours. This way the bottle can be opened earlier than expected but also age until later than expected !

All these techniques make the wine more complex, and enable it to age longer. These techniques also cost a lot of money.

Some great Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bordeaux region should only be opened starting from 20 years after bottling, but will need around 40-50 years for their most complex aromas to show.

So in the end you got to know the techniques and terroir quality of the vineyard who produced your bottle, and the quality of the vintage. But that is usually reflected in the price of the bottle anyways.

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