Is Older Wine Always Better Wine? A Guide to Aging Wine
Does wine improve with age? Is older wine always superior? This guide delves into the art of wine aging, challenging common misconceptions and exploring the factors that influence a wine's maturation.
Discover how the aging process can transform a wine's character, learn when older truly means better, and discover how to identify wine worth aging.
Does Wine Get Better With Age?
The common belief that wine invariably improves with age is not a universal truth. The aging potential of wine is dependent on several factors that I'll discuss here.
It's important to note that not all wines are created equal in terms of aging. Robust reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux blends, and certain types of Port have a high tannin content that allows them to improve over many years.
Some fuller-bodied and complex whites like Riesling and Chardonnay also have the potential to age well. On the other hand, many light-bodied wines, including varieties like Pinot Grigio or Beaujolais, are crafted for immediate consumption and may lose their unique charm and freshness over time.
The quality of the wine is another crucial factor in its aging potential. Only wines that are well-made, with a good balance of sugar, acid, and tannins, have the capacity to improve with age. Wines of lesser quality often lack the necessary structure for successful aging, and their flavors may deteriorate rather than develop over time.
Storage conditions also play a significant role in how a wine ages. Even the finest wines can be ruined if not stored properly.
The ideal conditions for wine storage include a constant, cool temperature, ideally around 55°F, high humidity to prevent the cork from drying out, and minimal exposure to light.
What Happens as Wine Ages?
As wine ages, it undergoes a fascinating metamorphosis. The process is complex and subtle and affects how a wine looks, smells, and tastes.
Initially, the wine is vibrant and youthful, with primary flavors derived directly from the grape variety and the fermentation process. These can include a spectrum of fruit, floral, and spice notes.
However, as the wine ages, these primary flavors start to recede, making way for secondary and tertiary flavors to emerge.
Secondary flavors are typically a result of the winemaking process. For instance, flavors of vanilla, toast, or smoke can be imparted through oak aging. Over time, these flavors can meld with the primary fruit flavors, creating a more complex profile.
The real magic, however, happens as the tertiary flavors develop. These are the flavors that come with age. Earthy notes such as mushroom, leather, or forest floor, along with flavors of dried fruit, nuts, or honey, can emerge. The wine becomes less about the fruit and more about these nuanced, complex flavors.
Simultaneously, the texture of the wine evolves. The tannins, initially astringent in young red wines, soften and become more integrated, giving the wine a smoother, more velvety mouthfeel. The acidity and alcohol, too, can seem to mellow, leading to a more harmonious balance.
The color of the wine also changes with age. Red wines tend to lose their vibrant ruby hue, becoming more garnet and eventually brick red with age. White wines, on the other hand, deepen in color, evolving from pale lemon to gold and even amber.
It's important to remember that this aging process is not linear or predictable. Each wine ages in its own unique way, and part of the joy of wine aging is this element of surprise and discovery. As the wine evolves, so does our relationship with it, making each bottle a journey in itself.
Which Wines Age Well?
Identifying wines that will age well can be a complex task, as it depends on a multitude of factors.
However, there are some general characteristics to look for when seeking out wines with aging potential.
Wines with Structure
Wines that age well typically have a strong structure, which includes elements like tannins in red wines, acidity in both reds and whites, and sugar in dessert wines.
These components act as preservatives that help the wine evolve and develop complexity over time.
For example, a young, high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon may have high tannins that feel astringent in its youth, but these will soften and integrate over time, contributing to the wine's complexity.
Wines with Concentration and Complexity
Wines with a high concentration of flavor and a complex array of aromas and tastes are more likely to age well.
As the wine ages, the primary fruit flavors will recede, and secondary and tertiary flavors will develop, adding layers of complexity.
Balance refers to the harmony between the wine's components - fruit, acidity, tannins, alcohol, and, in some cases, sweetness. Wines that have a good balance in their youth are more likely to age well.
Age Worthy Grape Varietals
Certain grape varieties and wine regions are known for producing wines that age well. For example, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, and Rioja are regions known for their age-worthy wines.
Orange wines can age well too. They are fermented with their skins so they can be quite high in tannin.
The conditions of the growing season can significantly impact a wine's aging potential. Some vintages are more conducive to long-term aging than others.
Vintage charts, which rate the quality of a vintage for various wine regions, can be a helpful tool in identifying age-worthy wines.
Winemakers with Track Records
Winemakers with a history of producing age-worthy wines are a safe bet. These producers have the knowledge and skill to create wines that can stand the test of time.
Which Wines Don't Age Well?
While it's true that certain wines can improve and evolve beautifully over time, it's important to note that not all wines are designed to age. In fact, a significant number of wines are crafted to be enjoyed in their youth.
Take, for instance, inexpensive wines. These are often priced below $20 and are typically produced to be consumed shortly after they hit the shelves.
They are crafted in a style that emphasizes the freshness and vibrancy of their fruit flavors, which can diminish over time. However, this isn't an exact science and there are still age worthy wines to be found for less than $20.
These wines are celebrated for their youthful, crisp fruit flavors and acidity. As they age, they risk losing the freshness that defines their character.
Rosé wines, too, are generally best enjoyed while they are young and fresh. There are a few exceptions, such as some Bandol and Tavel rosés, but these are more the exception than the rule.
Then there are the fruit-forward red wines. Many of these, including wines made from grapes like Grenache, Zinfandel, and lighter styles of Pinot Noir, are best consumed while they are young. Their low-tannin, fruit-forward style is best appreciated before the fruit flavors have a chance to fade.
Lastly, we come to sparkling wines. While there are certainly exceptions, such as well-made Champagne and other high-quality sparkling wines, the majority of sparkling wines are designed to be enjoyed upon release.
How to Age Wine Yourself
Identifying Age Worthy Wines
We tend to think of red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon as being the most age-worthy but there are age-worthy white, wines, dessert wines, and fortified wines to be found too. Let's take a look at how these wines can be identified.
Dry red wines are often the most sought-after in collections, not necessarily due to their longevity, but because of the pleasure derived from savoring aged dry reds.
When selecting these wines, it's essential to look for a well-structured base and ensure the wine has sufficient acidity for extended maturation.
You can gauge the acidity by focusing on the finish. Wines with the right balance typically leave a lingering, tingling sensation from the acidity, coupled with residual fruit notes.
If you only sense the dry harshness of tannin, the wine may lack balance (overly tannic, insufficient acidity).
Barolo (Nebbiolo) from excellent vintages (2008, 2010, 2013, 2016)
Grand Cru Burgundy from excellent vintages (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)
White wines, in general, have a more condensed ageing timeline compared to their red counterparts, primarily due to their lack of tannin structure.
While there are exceptions like orange wines, most white wines don't typically exceed a 10-year lifespan.
When assessing the ageing potential of dry white wines, three factors are crucial: acidity, a hint of phenolic bitterness, and in some cases, oak tannins.
White wines that have been oak-aged, such as Reserva Rioja Blanco and Chardonnay, gain additional polyphenols from the oak.
Polyphenols play a significant role in slowing down the chemical reactions that cause wine to deteriorate over time, thus extending the ageing timeline of oaked whites.
However, it's essential to ensure that the wine has high acidity to prevent it from becoming overly soft as it ages.
German Riesling from excellent vintages (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2109)
Dessert wines and sweet wines possess some of the most extended ageing potential among all wine categories, thanks to the preservative properties of their high sugar content.
As a rule of thumb, red dessert wines tend to outlast white ones. The key to identifying a dessert wine's ageing potential lies once again in its acidity.
When tasting a sweet wine to assess its suitability for cellaring, you might be taken aback by its relatively dry taste despite its high residual sugar content.
For instance, a quality Spätlese Riesling, despite having around 90 g/L residual sugar, may only taste semi-sweet due to its strikingly high acidity and a hint of bitterness (phenolic bitterness) on the mid-palate towards the back.
Sauternes from excellent vintages (2001, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019)
These wines are renowned for their longevity, with some even enhancing their flavor profile after over 100 years in the producer's cellars.
However, not all fortified wines are designed for ageing, such as Ruby Port, which is produced and bottled in a manner that limits its cellaring potential.
Generally, fortified wines that have undergone extensive wood ageing are the ones that last the longest.
The prolonged exposure to minute amounts of oxygen during wood ageing may cause the color to fade in red wines (and turn white wines brown), but it actually stabilizes the flavor.
Port from excellent vintages (2000, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)
Ideal Storage Conditions for Aging Wines
The most crucial aspect of aging wine is ensuring it's stored correctly. Wine should be kept in a cool, dark place with a consistent temperature, ideally between 12-15 degrees Celsius (53-59 degrees Fahrenheit).
Fluctuations in temperature can cause the wine to expand and contract, potentially leading to leakage or spoilage.
The storage area should also have a relative humidity of about 70%. This prevents the cork from drying out and allowing air into the bottle, which can oxidize the wine. However, too much humidity can lead to mold and damage the labels.
Wine bottles should be stored on their sides to keep the cork moist, preventing it from drying out and cracking, which could let air in.
The storage area should be free from vibrations, which can disturb the sediment in the wine and speed up the aging process.
Wine should be kept out of direct sunlight, as UV rays can degrade and prematurely age the wine.
You can store wine safely for the long term in a wine cellar or a wine refrigerator.
Remember, aging wine is a long-term investment. It can take years for a wine to fully develop and reach its peak.
Keep track of what you're storing and for how long. This will help you manage your collection and prevent wines from being forgotten and left to age past their prime.
Be Aware of Drinking Windows
The whole idea of aging wine is to allow it to develop its potential and reach its prime. However, it won't be in its prime forever and it will eventually start to degrade.
Therefore, it's really important that you have some kind of system in place to keep track of its quality.
Identifying the optimal drinking window for aged wines can be a complex task but there are a few ways you can keep on top of things.
Research the Wine
The first step is to thoroughly research the specific wine you have. Some producers or wine experts may provide recommended drinking windows for certain wines or vintages.
This information can often be found on the winery's website or in wine guides and reviews. Wine critics often suggest an optimal drinking window for age-worthy wines in their reviews.
Understand the Varietal
Different grape varietals age at different rates. This means some keep for longer than others. Therefore, it's really important that you have an idea of how long a wine will keep before getting too old and spoiling.
Here's a rough guide to the aging potential for selected wines:
Aging Potential of Popular Red Wine Varietals
up to 20 years
up to 20 years
up to 20 years
up to 20 years
up to 17 years
up to 17 years
up to 15 years
up to 10 years
Aging Potential of White Wine Varietals
up to 15 years
up to 10 years
up to 8 years
up to 8 years
up to 7 years
up to 4 years
up to 4 years
Aging Potential of Sweet/Dessert Wine Varietals
Recioto della Valpolicella
up to 50 years
up to 50 years
Hungarian Tokaji Aszu
up to 40 years
up to 20 years
Aging Potential of Fortified Wine Varietals
Tawny and Vinntage Port
up to 100 years
up to 80 years
Consider the Vintage
The conditions of the year in which the grapes were grown can significantly impact a wine's aging potential.
Years with ideal weather conditions tend to produce wines with better aging potential. Vintage charts, which rate the quality of a wine region's output year by year, can be a helpful resource.
If you have more than one bottle of a particular wine, you can open a bottle periodically to see how it's developing. This can give you a sense of whether the wine is still improving or if it has reached its peak.
Look for Signs of Aging
Visual cues can also provide hints about a wine's age. As red wines age, their color can shift from bright ruby to a more brick-like hue.
White wines, on the other hand, tend to darken with age, moving from pale yellow to a deeper gold or brown.
Trust Your Palate
Ultimately, the best time to drink a wine is when you enjoy it the most. Everyone's tastes are different, and what one person considers to be a wine's prime might be different from another's.