How to tell if a wine is meant to age; of all the questions I receive about wine from friends and clients, this one probably tops the list. And it makes sense – after all, the potential to improve with time is one of the first things we ever hear about wine. Invariably, we all have a bottle or two (or perhaps more) that we’ve been saving for a very special occasion; a bottle that was either presented to us under memorable circumstances, or perhaps a bottle we’d purchased while traveling abroad, or most commonly, a bottle we’d spent a little extra on that we might normally. Regardless of the circumstances, the one constant is that we want to make sure we give this extra special bottle the time it needs to age and evolve before finally pulling the cork.
Unfortunately, like much of the mystique around wine, there is often a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about which wines to age, how long to age them – and perhaps most importantly, why some wines benefit from aging and what this process sets out to accomplish. In my opinion, a good percentage of the wines of the world deliver more pleasure in their youth than they do with extended bottle age – and a good number of wine drinkers much prefer the flavours of young wines over wines with more age. With all this said, there are some empirical standards by which we can approach this complex matrix of considerations to help demystify which wines are truly meant to age.
Why Age Wine?
One word I hear friends and clients often use to describe a wine they like is “smooth” – while conversely, a word that often pops up to describe less positive impressions of a given wine is “harsh”. In a nutshell, these two words provide a bit of a framework around which we can look at the impact that aging has on wine. In its simplest form, aging is the slow process of air interacting with wine. As this process unfolds we find that certain “harsh” attributes found in young wine tend to become “smoother” or less apparent, creating a more texturally balanced drinking experience where no single element of the wine is markedly more apparent than another. In addition to this textural evolution, allowing wines to age also imparts new and different flavours – or complexity. In their youth, most wines showcase bright and fresh fruit flavours and aromas, and as they age wines offer flavours and aromas more mindful of earth, spice and dried fruit. These aged flavours and aromas tend to be more delicate or subtle, and make for better pairings with more refined foods.
How Long Is a Matter of Taste
Given the ideas we’ve just discussed, I have found that – like any sensory impression – the perfect balance of texture, flavours and aromas leave great latitude for personal opinion and preference. Some of us prefer brighter and fresher fruit flavours to take centre stage in wines, while others prefer more earth and spice, while still others find the greatest pleasure with wines offering some balance of both. Some of us like big sturdy wines with assertive tannins, while others prefer wines with bright and refreshing acidity. When one considers the number of variants at play in a single bottle of wine, it becomes evident that trying to establish a single set of “rules” for all wines is nearly impossible. My advice? If you’re considering a wine as a candidate for extended aging, never buy just a single bottle. Rather, purchase half a dozen or so bottles, allow them to rest for a few years before you open one and see what you think. If it hasn’t developed the textural or aromatic qualities you’re after, leave the remaining bottles for a year or two before revisiting them.
Better Too Early Than Too Late
The #1 most common mistake most people make when aging wine is allowing it to age too long before drinking it. I remain adamant that you are always better to have opened a bottle of wine a year (or even a couple of years) too soon than you are to leave it too long and allow it to die a sorry and lonely death. If left to age too long, wines become oxidized (taking on an unpleasant nutty flavour), lose all of their fruit and freshness and essentially turn rather insipid vinegar. What a tragic fate for something that has been a prized possession for several years! A wine consumed somewhat earlier than it might have ultimately lasted is a far better outcome than pouring a bottle of dead wine down the drain.
3 Benchmarks Of Age-Worthy Wine
Having touched on the countless variables at play when assessing the aging potential of a given wine, there are four benchmark criteria upon which you can make informed decisions about the aging potential of most wines: (i) Acidity, (ii) Tannin, and (iii) Alcohol. In short, the greater the acidity and tannin found in a wine, the longer you can expect it to last. Alcohol, on the other hand, has an inverse relationship with aging potential – wines with higher levels of alcohol offer less aging potential than wines with lower levels of alcohol.
Perfect Cellar Conditions
Finally, we come to the most overlooked aspect surrounding the aging potential of wine – the conditions in which you lay it down to rest. Perhaps as much as the three benchmark criteria outlined above, the temperature, humidity, position of the bottle (on its side vs. standing upright) and even the amount of light the wine is exposed to, all play a massive role in determining how long a wine will age. Ideally, your cellar should remain somewhere between 12 and 14 degrees Celsius, but more important than the actual temperature is establishing a stable and consistent temperature. Some studies looking at aging potential of wines have shown little, if any, negative outcomes when wine cellars are regulated at temperatures as high as 20 to 21 degrees Celsius. However, frequent fluctuations in temperature of 2-4 degrees Celsius have been shown to measurably reduce the aging potential of wines. In short, wines will age best in cool and damp conditions away from light and benefit from being moved, shaken or rotated as infrequently as possible. Finally, wines laid down to rest should always be placed on their side to keep the wine in contact with cork.