What’s the scoop on aging wine?

What’s the scoop on aging wine?

Since I’ve started putting away some wines in our cellar, I’ve been asked quite a few times what laying a bottle down for a few years does for that bottle. The question goes something like “what’s the difference between a young bottle of wine and one that’s been aged for a while?” or the less subtle version of that same question “why on earth would you sit on a bottle for 10 years if you could drink it now?”.  In order to address this, let’s break it down into 3 questions:

1) What makes a wine age-worthy?

90% to 95% of all wines are meant to be consumed as soon as they hit the shelves. As one winery put it: “…remember that a wine cellar is not a wine hospital. If you’ve got an average bottle of wine to start with, it will not improve with age. It’ll just be an older average bottle of wine.”. These 90% to 95% will actually start losing their fruit flavours within 6 months of your purchase and won’t gain anything back for it in return (so drink up!). What’s the difference then between those wines and the other 5% to 10%? There are three main components that will allow for a wine to stay standing after a few years in the cellar:

  • Flavour intensity;
  • Tannins; and
  • Acidity.

The combination of these three will allow for a wine to still be drinkable after a few years. That does not mean though that all those 5% to 10% will actually improve with age, which takes us to our next question.

2) What makes that a wine will actually improve with age?

This question is much more tricky to answer. First of all, let me qualify the term “improve” with a brief description of what we would like to see in a wine that has “improved” with age. What we are looking for here are what’s called “tertiary flavours”, which could include leather, cigar box, and forest floor flavours (among many others). These tertiary flavours have the potential to increase a wine’s complexity, thereby making it more interesting to taste than when tasted young. The reason behind my qualification of the tem “improve” though, is that not everyone appreciates these flavours, so it’s important to try a few oldies before you start cellaring to make sure you’ll appreciate those bottles still when they’ve got a few years on them. Personally, I find that nothing beats the complexity, balance, and elegance of a 10- to 20-year old Bordeaux.

So with that in mind, the question then becomes which wines will develop those interesting tertiary flavours and if so, what those tertiary aromas will be like. To some extend, a greater degree of the 3 components listed above may hint at the potential for a wine to develop these flavours. Mostly though, the only way to truly find out is to let some bottles lie for a few decades, taste a bottle every few years, and see where it goes. So we only have a solid answer to this question for regions and producers that have been around long enough for us to be able to taste wines that are 10, 20, 30, 40 years old (or older). These regions include Bordeaux, Burgundy, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, and higher-end Mosel Riesling to name a few. This also means that the question is difficult to answer for regions that have only just started producing higher-end wines. As an example, certain high-end Malbecs from Argentina are showing much promise in terms of aging, but they have been around for less than two decades at the most, so only time will tell how they will develop further.

3) What wines should be aged?

This last question applies to only a small (and decreasing) number of wines. There are certain wines that will simply need some time before they are ready to be drunk. You will recognize these wines by an abundance of tannins, which will make your tongue feel like a piece of leather, and a lack of fruit flavours, though still combined with high acidity. In other words, they will have an unpleasant mouthfeel and taste rather shut down. This experience will indicate that the wine needs a bit of time for the tannins to soften and the fruit flavours to open up.

Some examples

So this then identifies 3 categories that comprise the 5% to 10% of wines that have the ability to age. To illustrate those 3 categories, I took a quick look at my cellar for some examples:

  • Category 1: Can age, but won’t necessarily improve with time
    • Example: 2005 Viña Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Medalla Real
    • This wine will have softened somewhat with time, but to say that is has developed some interesting additional flavours and complexity would be a stretch. Still a great value though.
  • Category 2: Ready for drinking now, but will improve with age
    • Example: 2007 Château Sociando-Mallet
    • This can be drunk now, but should develop some additional complexity and become more balanced over the course of the next 10 years
  • Category 3: Needs time
    • Example: 2006 Château Léoville Barton
    • Based on reviews this is “Fairly closed, but dense ripe fruit clearly there; full, concentrated, tannic wine; quite massive in style; full-bodied, with a firm, powerful palate. Long and mouthpuckering. A muscular baby.” So all of this indicates that this wine is going to need some time still to settle down.

If you’re interested in putting down a few bottles and are looking for some advice, let me know!

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1 Comment

  1. July Article: What’s the scoop on aging wine? « 1855consulting

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