I know this scenario well; it is exactly what has happened in every wine class I have ever taught. Trust my experience on this one: last night I tallied up the number of wine classes I have taught over the past 11 years as a full-time wine educator. As of today the number is 8,786.
With due respect to the fact that the aging of wine is a huge, debatable topic, I offer you in “almost real-time” and as close to verbatim as my fingers can type, the “Cliff-Notes Version” of my answers to the often-asked questions of time, as it relates to wine.
Is older better?
Most wine on the market today is designed to be at its best immediately upon its release. Some statistics say that nearly 95% of the wine we see for sale today is just this type…best to consume it now, while it is young and fresh. Not surprisingly, this correlates rather well to another statistic: that 95% of the wine purchased today is consumed within one week of purchase. If you look at your own wine buying habits, it is likely that when shopping for wine, you are shopping for something to drink that day, that evening, or that weekend.
And yet it is true that there are those wines that benefit from proper bottle aging; able to change and become better over time. For white wines, the ultimate age might be five to ten years. For hearty red wines, noble dessert wines and vintage Champagnes, it might be a decade or even more. While popular culture is rife with tales of hundred-year-old bottles opened with pomp and circumstance at cloistered affairs, such bottles are rarely – if ever- in prime condition. It must be remembered that all wine will inevitably reach its peak and go “over the hill,” meaning the taste, flavor, and aroma will start to fade.
What type of wine is age-worthy?
The type of wines that can support five, ten, or even more years of gentle aging are generally made from what the French refer to as “Noble Grapes”. As a matter of fact, the archaic definition of “Noble Grape” was a grape that produced a wine that could be aged. I thoroughly expect – maybe even hope – to catch flak from wine experts near and far for what I am about to do, but here goes: I offer you a short list of some of the grapes considered “Noble”, now and forever. For red wines, you can count on the basic Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Italian Superstars Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, and Spain’s Tempranillo, as well as Syrah, Pinot Noir, and many other lesser-known red grapes. Age-worthy whites include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Riesling among the chosen few.
What exactly happens to wine as it ages?
As red wine ages, the harsh tannins of its youth gradually give way to a softer mouthfeel. An inky dark color will fade to a light brick red. In processes that began during fermentation and continue after bottling, certain compounds in the wine will begin to bind together and “aggregate.” Eventually these particles reach a certain size where they are too large to stay suspended in the solution and will sink to the bottom of the bottle and become visible sediment. The resulting wine, with a reduction of its tannins and pigment, will have a paler color, softer taste, and less astringency than the wine had in its youth.
In a parallel process known as “esterification,” the wine’s acids combine with some of the wine’s alcohols in a complex array to form the chemicals known as “esters”, introducing a whole new range of possible aromas to the wine. These complex scents are known as “tertiary aromas”, or bottle bouquet…the amazing, multi-layered scent of a mature wine. These aromas might include floral aromas such as rose petal, lilac, or what I call “distant memories of honeysuckle and jasmine.” You may notice exotic spice aromas such as cardamom, star-anise, cinnamon, curry, or “Earl Grey Tea.” Earthy aromas such as truffle, wet leaves, mushroom, forest floor and cedar can emerge.
How do I know if I should drink a wine now, or wait?
I am about to commit the sin of generalizing about wine…however, to answer the question it must be done. Here goes:
If a bottle of wine costs less than $25.00, drink it now.
If you like the way a wine tastes today, go buy some more and drink it now.
If your wine is made from the noble grapes, vineyard regions, vintages, and via winemaking techniques that support aging, consider laying it down.
If your wine has high levels of sugar, alcohol, tannin, or acidity, consider laying it down.
If the winemaker told you the wine is age worthy, lay it down!
When in doubt, pour it out…into a glass and down your throat, that is! If you’re really not sure whether to open a bottle or not – open it up. Invite a few friends over and turn an ordinary day into a special occasion. The worst thing that can happen is you drink a great wine too young – and wouldn’t you rather drink it too young than never get to drink it at all?