Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: October 23, 2018

Why Does Wine Get Better With Age?

Why Does Wine Get Better With Age?

Why does wine get better with age? Imagine a situation where two glasses of wine are placed before you. Each glass is made from grapes that are grown from the same vines, but one is 0 years while the other is ten years.

The first glass is exceptionally young, produces a ripe berry scent and your first sip fills your entire mouth with tart and bitterness, and when you swallow, your mouth feels slightly chalky and dry.

The second glass doesn't smell anything like fresh but instead smells like leather and earth. You can still feel the fruitiness in it, but the taste is subtler, mixed up with leather licorice and chocolate. When you swallow, your mouth feels warm and fuzzy. Irrespective of whether you are an amateur or veteran wine taster, you can clearly establish the difference between a young version of wine and a properly aged wine.

Wine tastes better as it ages because of a chemical reaction taking place between the acids, the sugars and other substances called phenolic compounds. With time, this chemical can significantly tamper with the taste of the wine in such a way that it gives it a pleasant flavor. The chemical transformation can also interfere with the aroma and color of the wine, consequently affecting the entire mouth experience.

Wine aging

Humans had known about wine aging since the olden days when Greeks, who were known to produce the straw wine that was capable of aging because of its high amount of sugar. A bottle of wine is like a closed system in which a lot of complex chemical reaction and transformation is taking place that many scientists are yet to unravel. However, all heads nod in agreement that the most predominant factors in wine aging are tannin, sugar, and acidity.

Which wines age better and when?

One of the challenges that winemakers come across is determining when is the right time to drink, bottle up, sell the wine or even when the wine has finished aging. Some also have a challenge knowing which wines should be aged and which ones should not. Nowadays, there exists complex instruments and measures that winemakers use to ascertain that particular wine has attained its peak when the alcohol levels, acidity, and tannins have all balanced.

Completely brewed wine should be free of carbon dioxide gas which is produced as a result of yeast break down the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. However, how the wine is prepared can massively influence the aging potential. For instance, wine with lots of sugar can take longer to fully attain its maximum potential. A wine that has been subjected to high levels of temperatures may age quickly or age prematurely compared to wines placed under moderate temperatures.

Sweet wines have been found to age incredibly well than other wines. While many people do not agree with the fact that aged wines taste better, this statement fails to recognize that not all wines qualify for aging. In fact, when these types of wine age, they release or create a new flavor that did not exist before. More intricate flavors are developed through the concept depending on the many other factors.

When is it too late to stop the process?

For each bottle to reach its zenith potency, it must go through a series of chemical reactions and sit in the cellar for quite some time. Determining this period, however, is not easy, and only the highly skilled in the industry know how to go about it. The duration varies from one bottle to another.

If you bought wine and decided to age it on your own, you may not do justice to yourself as there are high chances that you will either under age it or over age it. Additionally, you may not notice the various chemical transformation taking place or even understand what you should do, though you could seek some skilled winemaker to help you.

There are instances where the wine has reached its maximum aging process. This is the time you are supposed to either drink the contents, pack or sell depending on your situation. Failure to take any of the mentioned actions could lead to damage of the wine as it may change the taste, the color, the flavor, or all of them.

The winemaker determines the number of tannins in a bottle of wine by regulating the period of exposure of the seeds, stems, and skin. Doing this requires some form of exceptional knowledge of grapes since many grapes do not have a balanced level of acid, sugars, and tannins to guarantee longevity. Certain species have a perfect balance which tends to grow in brisk summers and long but not bleak winters. Only a highly knowledgeable person can make the subconscious guess of how weather affects tannins and the overall fruit development.

Factors that influence wine aging

1. Tannins

Tannins are a group of the phenolic compound which plays a significant part in determining how the wine will taste after aging; they are produced by plants to act as defensive compounds. Tannins are typically found in the skins, the seeds and stems of the grapes and are also responsible for the dry texture of the wine. They are accountable for the dried out feeling in red wines.

Tannins have those antifungal properties and make the grapefruit to taste really nasty till the seed has matured. Tannins are not only bitter in the human mouth but bind proteins which are responsible for your slimy saliva, thus stripping away the sliminess—like green bananas in your mouth, how do they feel? This popular feel is known as astringency.

Tannins are not just saliva spoilers but are partially responsible for the wine's smell. Since they do not have aromas of their own, tannins react to your wine's esters and alcohol and gradually subdues the fruity, flowery aromas of the young wine. They also attract other molecules to create more fine-grown smells and a more complex character of mature wines.

Small amounts of oxygen that leak through the cork reacts with tannins, prompting further reactions. However, large amounts of oxygen overwhelm the tannins and oxidize other unwanted molecules making the wine to change the taste dramatically.

The color of old wine changes due to the effects of tannins. The bluish-red color is the grapes' naturally produced color, but the compounds dry away after some years, but are replaced by brick-red deep color made from a long polymer which links the grape pigments to tannins.

Keep in mind that not all wines taste good when they age, only some few selected species have this privilege. Most wines mature well with their natural red color, but just certain grapes possess the correct balance of tannins, sugars, and acids to sustain the long aging period.

2. Oxygen

Think of wine as some good time drink that should be enjoyed anytime—they’re not supposed to be laid out in the cellar for lengthy periods of time to mature, they will age and spoil and mess you up. A glass of oxidized wine can be tastier than a small glass of suffocated wine; you can tell that oxygen is at it again.

When oxygen combines with tannins, it controls how tannins react with our mouth particularly the tongue. Wine acids force the patience in tannins to neutralize the oxygen molecules and take over again. If oxygen is controlled, the end product here is usually a sweet properly aged wine.

However, large amounts of oxygen molecules overwhelm the tannins. This back and forth fights between oxygen and tannins ruins the wine—the way they destroy your half-eaten apple or freshly peeled potatoes which are assailed by the surge of oxygen. If you had not thought of drinking your wine early enough, you might have to take its while already in a bad state.

3. Temperature 

Wines are particularly sensitive to temperatures. Just like baking, high temperatures are destructive while low temperatures are unreliable. For a wine to age and taste heavenly, you have to make sure that the temperatures are neither high nor low. Heat significantly impacts the characteristics of the wine such as the color, the smell, and the taste.

High temperatures speed up the rate of aging and results to the maturation of the product in a short period of time. Another major concern is that high temperatures will result in unwanted or undesirable chemical reactions that would take place and that were either nonexistent or slow. The warm temperatures oxidize the wine particles, which means that the wine is taking in more oxygen than it should, thus becoming unstable and leading premature aging.

Moderate temperatures are paramount. Consistent humidity levels help the wine taste good as it ages. Too much humidity will attract the growth of mold around the cork, and very little humidity may force the cork to loosen or crumble, allowing oxygen to get in and destroy the already doing excellent drink.

Aging wine is like human growth where the body requires a balance of nutrients in order to grow appropriately too much, or too little of these ultimately have an adverse effect on the body. Similarly, if temperatures are well taken care of, the wine grows sweeter than young wine.

4. Sugar

One of the main reasons why wine is said to be sweet is the presence of sugar. Sugar is an essential component in winemaking and influences the quality of the end product. It is imperative to understand that the amount of sugar in wine determines the level of alcohol in the drink.

While capitalization is done to ensure that wine becomes not just sweet but relatively alcoholic and acidic. When aging wine, winemakers add sugar to the wine so that as it ages, the yeast components remaining will break down the added sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

 The process takes place slowly as the wine ages and the gases like carbon dioxide will dissipate as little amounts of oxygen makes their way into the bottle. If all the elements like temperature are balanced, there should be no reason why the wine shouldn't be subtle and sweet in the mouth.

Did you know that the best-aged wines and the longest-lived wines are sweet wines? Well, Port, Riesling, Sherry, and Sauternes are just some of the examples you should take a close look at.

5. Alcohol

People who enjoy taking wine do not pay too much attention to the alcohol level. In most cases, the amount of alcohol levels in wines is relatively low and may require an individual to take a considerable amount in order to get drunk.  Similarly, in winemaking, winemakers do not focus on the amount of alcohol produced. In fact, the lower the alcohol the level in a non-fortified drink, the lengthier it lasts. Of course, there are always exceptions as winemaking is all about balancing.

You may have come across the terms "dry white or red wine." These are the perfect examples of wines that do not have lots of alcohol but can be aged to make them taste better. When seeking wine for aging pay attention to alcohol level. The science behind this is that high levels of sugar in wine produces more alcohol and carbon dioxide which in turns interferes with the level of acidity. A delightful wine, especially wine that has been capitalized has less acidity which is needed to balance with tannins and sugars.

6. Acidity

This is one of the most apparent components in aging wines. Wines with higher levels of acidity tend to last longer compared to their fellow counterparts. As wine gets older, it slowly starts losing its acidic nature and flattens. Wines with low acid levels cannot be aged and will most likely need to be sold out as quickly as possible—just as no one likes flat sodas; no one can appreciate flat wine.

If the amount of acidity is balanced with tannin and the sugar, then that wine has qualified for aging. However, if the acid levels start going down, aging should be stopped. A lot of care needs to taken to ensure that the wine reaches its maximum aging period without having issues with acid level.

About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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