Now we’re not committing any more heinous wine storage crimes it’s time to talk about which wines you should and shouldn’t be keeping. This is a topic which constantly comes up when I host wine tastings. The questions usually go something like this:
- “Does wine always improve with age?”
- “Is it dangerous to drink aged wine?”
- “Are aged wines better than young wines?”
- “How long can you age wine for?”
- “But you can only age really expensive wines, right?”
- “So how do you know which wines to age?”
As these questions prove, ageing wine is a topic full of myths, fallacies and misunderstandings. Do not despair. Here’s the first part of my efforts to guide you on your way to ageing like a pro. It all boils down to this basic principle:
So now we’ve got that sorted, let’s talk about ageing wine…
Why do we age wine?
Unlike those unidentifiable former food items lurking in the back of your fridge, wine can actually improve as it gets older. Humans have known about the potential of aged wines for millennia; in ancient Rome the cult wine of the day was a sweet white wine called Falernian which could be aged for decades much like a modern Chateau d’Yquem (1). The wine was kept in sealed clay amphorae, allowing significant oxidation to occur which turned the wine a deep golden brown colour.
In 17th century Europe ageing wine was also in vogue. By the end of the century, wine lovers had come up with two innovations which were to transform the world – the glass wine bottle and the rise of the oh-so humble but indispensable cork stopper. Developments in glassmaking techniques enabled the production of tougher, thicker glass which could survive transportation. These glass bottles also had fairly uniform openings, meaning that corks could be made to fit snugly into the mouth of the bottle. Now wines could be stored and aged in a nearly air-tight environment which would allow the wine to continue to develop and mature over time. These improvements contributed to the success of fortified wines like Port and Sherry, and aged Claret, with the English acquiring a voracious appetite for these intense wines which would soften when kept in the bottle for several years.
So how does ageing improve wine? Ageing in the bottle helps to alter the form of the tannins in wine, making them seem less astringent. This happens thanks to a process called polymerization; over time the typical short tannin molecules found in young wine link up to form longer molecule chains. These longer tannin molecules are perceived on the palate as less bitter than the tannins in young wine. Aged wine is thus often described as softer or rounder compared with its younger siblings (for example, a bottle of top quality red Bordeaux which has seen significant ageing may well be a lot easier on the palate than a young wine from the same producer).
Ageing in the bottle can also add additional complexity as tertiary or “bouquet” aromas develop in the wine over time. Fruit flavours in the wine tend to become more like dried or stewed fruit, and aromas like leather, mushroom, leaves, roasted nuts, coffee, and dark chocolate can appear as the wine matures.
Oh, and don’t forget that wine is also aged in oak. Often the idea with this winemaking process is to extract flavors from the barrel to subtly change the taste and aromas of the wine. Oak typically imparts flavours like vanilla, sweet spices, and sometimes a smoky note if the barrel was charred while it was being made. Ageing in oak also helps to soften the wine by reducing the astringency of the tannins. Fine wines are often first aged in oak for a significant period of time (12 months or more) before undergoing further maturation in the bottle.
The wines you should quaff right now
You know that ten buck chuck you grabbed at your local Target some months back? Drink it. Stop whatever you’re doing and drink it. It’s only gonna get worse. The vast majority of wine being made today (some 90-90%, depending on who you ask) is designed to be drunk young. This is especially true for most white wines which can begin to deteriorate as little as a year after bottling, while reds should generally be drunk before their 5th birthday. Simple, vibrant reds and whites will lose their bright, fruity character over time, while a wine that has high, unbalanced alcohol will seem even hotter as the fruit flavours fade.
An extreme example of these wines made to be drunk young is Beaujolais Nouveau which is made from the Gamay grape in the Burgundy region. It’s made using a process called carbonic maceration and then released for sale after just a few weeks of fermentation. This creates a unique, fresh style of wine which has low tannins and often features kirsch, cherry and banana aromas from the carbonic maceration. Ideally Beaujolais Nouveau should be drunk 6 months after it’s release in November, but luckily it’s so easy to drink that getting through the 70 million bottles sold annually is a breeze. (Well, you know how I love my wine…)
So which are the keepers?
Let’s start with whites. A great option for your cellar is a good quality German Riesling. Those from colder regions like the Mosel Valley are typically austere in their youth and really benefit from a decade or two of bottle ageing to soften and mature. Over time, these Rieslings often develop a distinctive petrol aroma which people either love or hate. Another white contender is Australian Semillon, such as that produced in the Hunter Valley, as well as white Bordeaux (typically a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and good ole Semillon) and white Burgundy. White wines from these areas which display balance, complexity, good structure, high acidity and concentrated fruit flavours have great potential to mature into something absolutely sublime. This is also the case with exceptional sweet whites like Sauternes and Tokaji which can continue to improve and mature a century after bottling!
For the reds, a general rule of thumb is to opt for reds which are high in tannins like Shiraz/Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, and so on. Tannic reds can really benefit from bottle ageing; over time those tannins soften and the wine becomes more balanced and drinkable. The classic example is red Bordeaux from the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Left Bank which tend to display astringent tannins thanks to the difficult climate. Premier Cru wines from this hallowed region can thrive on 20+ years in bottle, whereas most of the less prestigious wines would do well with a decade or so. Top quality Barolos and Chianti Classico are another great pick because of their typical intensity, plucky tannins and high acidity.
Ageing wines yourself can be a source of great pleasure. In Europe it’s a common tradition to purchase some top quality age-worthy wine when a child is born. The idea is he or she will open the wine when they turn 21. It’s also a great idea for a wedding gift – something the couple can open on their 25th anniversary (if they make it that long! And if they don’t, at least one of them can use it to drown their sorrows. That’s a win-win, right?).
What’s your favourite aged wine? Let us know in the comments! And if you’ve enjoyed the read, why not join us here at The Wine Culturist by simply clicking the follow button in the sidebar… We always love making new winelover friends!
(1) “Recreating Old Drinks provides an enjoyable form of time-travelling”, The Economist (Dec 20th, 2001)