Part of the appeal and mysticism of wine is a belief that if one lays down a bottle for many years and then quaffs the old and ancient vintage, it will awaken from its slumber to tantalize and excite in ways that no wine drinker could ever imagine. In truth though, while popping that cork on a decades old bottle will often leave the drinker with a lasting impression, sadly that experience will probably be recalled more for horror than delight. In the simplest terms, the vast majority of wine is not made to age and delayed gratification will only lead to spoilage. Even though we all love the imagery of the old dusty wine cellar and pulling out that ultra-aged bottle, the reality is that only a very miniscule amount of wines will hold up to this kind of aging and even in optimal cellar conditions those wines have a definite shelf life. The quandary then, is how do you know what bottles to age and for how long?
What Happens When Wine Ages
Often experts like to say that “wine is a living and breathing thing”, which basically means the flavor and texture of wine will not stay constant over long periods of time. Therefore, understanding what happens to wine during long term aging is one of the first steps to determining whether or not to cellar a bottle. In general terms, most young wine starts off its life very fruit forward and vibrant. Over time the fruity flavors in a wine will start to give way to an earthiness and flavors like leather and minerals. The wine will soften and begin to lose the bright acidic notes that it had when it was young. In rare instances with some big bold tannic red wines, this can be a good thing and the wines will improve, however with most wines, these new flavors detract from the wine and makes for flat and boring tastes. The other big part of aging wines comes from oxidation which is the effect that oxygen has on wine. Even sealed bottles will oxidize over long periods of time and with oxidation comes nutty flavors and browning. This oxidative effect will normally deteriorate a wine’s quality with age. Wines with a lot of tannin and higher acid levels will hold up to aging best as they are less susceptible to oxidation and spoilage and will develop new interesting flavors over time.
Aging White Wines
White wines are usually more fruit forward than reds and in most cases will not benefit from long term cellaring. Light, fruit forward and low acid wines (for example: Traminette, Vignoles, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc) will always be best fresh and cellaring will only be harmful to flavor. However, there are some examples of white wines that will age gracefully over time. Late harvest and botrytized white wines can be aged for very long times, even up to several decades, in a wine cellar. Some examples like this are Ice Wine, Sauternes, and Hungarian Tokay Aszu style wines. Also, some oak barrel aged whites, such as some California Chardonnay, can benefit from extended time in the bottle, however except in the rarest of circumstances they will not age beneficially for more than a couple years. High quality sparkling wines made via the traditional Champagne method can sometimes benefit from few years of aging as well. More often than not though, traditional still white wines are bottled ready to drink and will not improve over time.
Aging Red Wines
The decision to age a red wine can be quite a bit more perplexing than white wine. A myriad of factors complicates the verdict of whether to age or drink right away. Red wines tend to have more tannin than white, which lends itself to longer aging, however tannin levels are not uniform from wine to wine. For example, a 2010 cabernet sauvignon from ABC winery from Napa, CA may or may not have a much higher level of tannin than a 2010 cabernet sauvignon from XYZ winery also from Napa, CA. In addition, factors such as length of time in barrels can affect how long a wine will age once in the bottle. As a general rule, most dry red barrel aged wines will hold up for a couple years, but are ready to drink now. Port style dessert wines are a great example of wines that will cellar gracefully for decades. Also, ultra-premium reds wines like high end Napa Valley cabernets and French Bordeaux can and should be aged for extended periods of time.
Seeking More Information About Wine Aging
There are many sources of information and advice to help you decide which wines will be best for long term aging. When picking out a bottle of wine, ask the clerk at the wine shop or a winery tasting room employee if they think that wine should be enjoyed right away or if it will benefit from cellaring. There are countless internet and magazine publications that post wine reviews and they usually include information on how long to cellar a particular bottle. Always remember that aging wine is tricky – it is not an exact science and generally revolves around experts’ best guesses. The best, and most fun, way to learn about aging wine is to try out different wines of different ages and see how they change over time.