What is the “life-span” of wine? I have heard that wine gets better with age, but I have also heard that wine can spoil and go bad. How do I know the perfect time to drink a bottle of wine from my extremely modest wine cellar. - Michael W.
What a wonderful conunundrum - and a valid question. When we take into account red or white, the grape variety, the structure, the vintage, and the producer, it's enough to to make our heads spin. But for the average wine drinker, here are my general rules of thumb:
Less than $15: Drink within the year
It's important to note that most wine is made to be consumed, like, now. In the U.S., wine and beer are now neck-in-neck as the most preferred alcoholic beverage. But those numbers are more significant than our level of patience. So many winemakers craft their wines to be quaffed as soon as they are released. These wines are not getting better with age. But if you bought-out BevMo's 5-cent sale last month, don't fret. Assuming the bottles are not exposed to drastic conditions, they will still be at their best for a year or so.
$15 to $30: Drink within a few years
Bottles that fall in this price range tend have a little more lasting power, particularly red and fuller-body white wines. But they aren't intended to be longterm residents of your wine cellar. So drink them while they're hot.
More than $30: Drink within 5+ years
This is where things get a little more complicated. Wine can get better with age, but it all depends on its composition of tannin, acidity, alcohol, and residual sugar, as well as the storage of the wine. Got all that? Ultimately, it's all a guessing game. The best way to know for sure is to try it. But a good way to gauge how long to hold on to a high-end bottle is to find out what the winemaker suggests. She made deliberate choices when developing the wine and watched how it grew during the early aging periods, so she probably has a fairly good idea about the wine's peak drinking years. But when in doubt, there's an app for that.
How to store wine for the best outcome
Much like your house cat, wine is a bit fussy unless it's napping in its Happy Place. If you're planning to hold on to that bottle a while, to best maintain your wine's integrity it should be stored in a dark place at a consistent temperature of about 55 degrees - no warmer than 70, no cooler than 45. If it has a natural cork, consider laying it on its side to keep the cork in fine form.
I learned my lesson with some prized bottles that were ruined during a summertime move or after a few years in the fashionable wine rack I had in my grad-school apartment. To play it safe, now I store my favorite bottles in a wine fridge. They come in all sizes these days, and can be quite reasonable.
See also After I Open a Bottle, How Long Will it be Good?