We have all heard about people drinking wines that are really old — maybe even older than us! — but why do people do this? How come some wines are consumed at an early date while others are consumed later? Is there any advantage to holding on to a bottle of wine for a long time? Is ageing suitable for all wines?
There is a lot of confusion around the ageing of wine. To help end some of that confusion, I will attempt to answer some questions:
What wines age well, and why?
What is the proper way to age wine?
What are the different life-stages of a wine?
If you collect wine, or if you ever have collected wine, you will know that not all wines are equal when it comes to ageing potential. Some wines seem to go bad after a year or two, while others hardly seem ready to drink after five years. To better understand this, let’s look at some of the characteristics that affect a wine’s ageing potential:
As grapes ripen on the vine, sugar content increases and acid levels decrease. When harvesting, producers try to strike a balance. They want the grapes to be ripe enough or the wine will come out tasting thin and acidic. But, harvest the grapes overripe and the acid will be too low and the wine will taste “flabby” (a bit like fruit juice). Acid levels fall as a wine ages, so it is important to have enough acid if the wine is to have any ageing potential.
On the other side of the coin, if you harvest grapes too soon, the wine will lack sufficient fruitiness. A wine’s fruitiness is not limited to harvest time though. It depends on a variety of factors, which include weather and yield. Fruity characters diminish over time, so it is important for a wine to have enough fruitiness if it is to age well.
These compounds, which give red wine its pigment and account for its dryness, are very important to the ageing process. This is partly due to the anti-oxidative properties of the tannins. Tannins drop sharply over time. A wine with very good ageing potential may be too tannic to enjoy when it is young. After a few years, the tannins drop enough to allow the other qualities in the wine rise to the surface.
It’s not 100 percent clear why, but wines that are balanced age better. And, wines that are out of balance will never reach a point where they are balanced and become more enjoyable to drink. A young wine may be tannic, but it should also have lots of acid and should have a concentrated fruitiness hidden behind the tannin and acid. Since all of these characteristics diminish over time, all are needed in good measure for a good wine to age well in the years to come.
These characteristics are what usually constitutes an age-worthy wine. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Red Burgundy wines, for instance, are not very big and tannic, as you would expect an age-worthy wine to be. On the contrary, these wines usually come across as light and fruity when young. In spite of this, red Burgundy wines are among the most age-worthy wines.
What about white wine? White wines do not have tannins. Can they still age well? The simple answer is that, typically, a white wine lacks the ageing potential of a red. Most white wines are not intended for keeping for long periods of time. However, again, there are exceptions. Curiously, Burgundy white wine is one of these exceptions. In general, although some white wines have ageing potential, most are consumed early.
So now that you know how to spot an age-worthy wine, how do you properly store a wine for future consumption?
If you are going to be keeping a bottle of wine for any length of time, it is important that you store the wine in proper cellar conditions. If your conditions are optimal, the ageing potential will be reduced. You don’t want to purchase an expensive bottle of wine and have it spoil on you, so here are some guidelines for storing your wines:
- Ideal temperature 10-13 °C (50-57 °F) with no sudden variations.
- Bottles with a cork, stored on their side, to prevent the cork from drying out and cracking, letting in oxygen.
- No direct sunlight. Wine does not like light, especially sunlight. That’s why bottles are tinted.
- Humidity levels are a debated topic, but probably around 60 percent is best. Too much humidity and the cork will rot. Too little humidity and the cork will crack.
These are the ideal conditions for storing and ageing wine. These days, these conditions are easy to achieve as wine-= fridges are affordable and easy to find. If you don’t have an ideal condition, that’s okay. An approximation will do. It just means you can’t age your wine quite as long.
Now that we are familiar with what makes an age-worthy wine and what age-worthy storage conditions are, I’d like to examine the life-stages of wine:
1st Stage: Hold — Wine is too tannic and possibly too acidic and closed (the flavours are hidden beneath the tannins).
2nd Stage: Drink or Hold — Flavours are starting to come out and tannins are settled down a little. Still a tannic wine.
3rd Stage: Drink — The wine has opened up and is ready to drink. The tannins are settled down enough that all aspects are now in balance. The wine’s flavours should now be more pronounced and the wine will show new subtle flavours and aromas.
4th Stage: Possibly Too Old — The subtle “aged” flavours and aromas will be more pronounced, but the fruitiness, acid and tannins may have dropped off so much that the wine is no longer enjoyable. The wine may seem “thin” or watery.
Of course many wines are intended for ageing. But many these days are also released “ready to drink”. These wines tend to be more simple and more affordable, but the good ones are well balanced. Even if a wine is regarded as age-worthy, some people prefer to drink it young. Others prefer such wines just before they turn. It’s a matter of personal taste. Some people — in fact, most people — don’t like aged wine. It’s too complex for many people’s palates. They just want a simple juicy wine. And that is just fine. As you learn your own tastes, you will discover how aged you like your wines. Maybe you like the young fruit-bombs. Or, maybe you prefer a complex, aged wine. That’s the great thing about wine. There is such a wide range of styles and flavours available that everyone can find something that’s right for them.