One of wine’s most magical properties is its ability, unique among foodstuffs, to not only survive but improve with long-term ageing.
There is a widespread misconception that wine always improves with age. Contrary to popular belief, most wines these days don’t improve with age. In fact, the majority of wine we see in stores today won’t age for very long at all. As a general rule, you can assume that:
· Everyday red wines have about a five-year life span, and
· Everyday white and rosé wines have about a two to three year life span.
Furthermore, not all wines get better with age equally well. There is such a thing as over-ageing, and in some cases, ageing gives a wine a flavour profile that is different from a young one, but not necessarily better.
Most wines are best enjoyed young by design. This is because today, winemakers are able to control all aspects of wine processing sufficiently to make a wine delicious upon release. While most reds improve slightly over several months to a few years, most white wines do not have that long a runway.
Wines have fruit flavours and aromas (like berries, apples, pears) and non-fruit flavours (like smoke, coffee) aromas. As the wine ages, the fruit flavours tend to diminish after only 12 months in the bottle, leaving behind the non-fruit flavours, and as oxygen plays with the chemical compounds responsible for those flavours, they change. This can either be very bad or transcendentally magical!
Successfully ageing wines is dependent upon many factors such as the variety of grape, level of alcohol, tannin (for red wines), acids and higher sugar content, vintage, viticulture practices, wine region and winemaking style – all play a significant part and help in the preservation process.
White wines with the longest ageing potential tend to be those with a high amount of extract and acidity. The latter in white wines, acting as a preservative, has a role similar to that of tannins in red wines. The process of making white wines, which includes little to no skin contact, means that white wines have a significantly lower amount of phenolic compounds, though barrel fermentation and oak ageing can impart some phenols. Similarly, the minimal skin contact with rosé wine limits their ageing potential. In general, white wines with a low pH have a greater capability of ageing.
With red wines, a high level of flavour compounds, such as phenolics (most notably tannins), will increase the likelihood that a wine will be able to age. Wines with high levels of phenols include Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Furthermore, some red wines are aged in oak barrel systems. However, such processes need lengthy time, high expenditure, etc., consequently, innovative ageing technologies have been developed. These technologies involve ageing wines using wood fragments, application of micro-oxygenation, ageing on lees, or the application of some physical methods using specific substances.
Additionally, wine storing and bottling are important phases of ageing for most wines, and each technology can benefit this process from different aspects. Traditional oak barrel technology is the oldest and most widely accepted methodology. The application of wood fragments, etc. are promising in accelerating the ageing process artificially, while application of micro-oxygenation and lees is reliable to improve wine quality.
Determining if a wine will last is not an exact science. Wines age through a series of complex chemical processes, some catalysed by the presence of oxygen and some catalysed by various enzymatic changes in the wine’s chemical structure. Most wine experts use deductive reasoning based on their past experiences to determine what wines age well.
As already stated, there are at least four essential characteristics (alcohol, tannin, acids and higher sugar) that most people agree, when tasting wine, will reveal the potentials of its ageing capabilities. Wines that age well typically have prominent, firm tannins and high acidity, which you’ll find most often in varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, red Bordeaux blends, and even some types of white wine like Chardonnay.
Keep in mind that a wine that ages well for 12 years will most likely not taste as delicious in the first few years of its life. The quality of an aged wine depends significantly bottle-by-bottle, depending on how it was stored and the condition of the bottle and cork. Thus it is said that rather than good old vintages, there are good old bottles.
Below are wine storage tips that will keep your bottles in top condition:
1. Store all your wine at the same temperature, preferably between 12-16°C. This is the ideal temperature for red, white, rosé, sparkling and fortified wines to age and evolve, if it is in their DNA to do so. To keep your wine in a warm area with large temperature fluctuations (more than 6-10°C) is detrimental. And although your basement may seem like a perfect cellar, monitor its temperature throughout the year.
2. Humidity control is important if you intend to age wines for three years or more. Lying wine on its side will keep the cork moist enough for a couple of years, but for longer term storage, you need consistent relative humidity (between 50%-75%) so corks don’t dry out. That would allow harmful air into the bottle.
3. Allow your wine to sit relatively still when ageing for longer periods. Constant motion or moving of bottles agitates the wine and can speed up maturation. Also, store them in a dark space, as ultraviolet rays can compromise a wine’s integrity.
4. It is fine to keep wine in the refrigerator short-term if that’s your only option aside from a hot room. At worst, the wine won’t evolve, as the colder temps will slow down or halt that process. But it won’t turn into vinegar, either.
5. If you’re considering wine fridges or a racking system, select a storage solution that has at least 25% more capacity than your current collection. As your passion for wine grows, your collection will, too.
6. Don’t wait too long to open that special bottle you’ve saved for the perfect occasion. Wine has a life cycle. After it peaks, its decline can happen quicker than you think. It’s always better to open a wine a bit too soon, when it can still be shared and enjoyed, than too late.
Like I always say in the tasting room, wine preference is pretty subjective. Red wines will age well for a number of years, but you may enjoy them more upon release if you prefer crisp, clean, bright and fruit-driven wines. If your preference is softer wines with a little more spice or earthiness, then age away.
Most whites, on the other hand, are purposely made to be drunk young and are released at the optimal drinking time. Finally, keep in mind that only 10% of wines produced improve after one year of ageing. That means 90% of wines will never be “too young”. So when in doubt, stop thinking and start drinking – pop that cork and enjoy it!