Who hasn’t heard those wine-themed clichés? “Like a fine wine, we get better with age”. And like many other similar motifs these cute culinary quotes enthusiastically contribute to the myth that all fine wines get better as they age. But do they really?
When trying to discern whether a wine is going to age well or not, you can be fairly safe in assuming “not.” Most wines on the market today, to the tune of 85-90%, are intended to be enjoyed sooner rather than later.
Simply said, they are not built to go the distance. They are ready to pop, drop and drink upon release. This is even truer when we’re talking about white wines, sparkling wines and rosé wines.
Bottle Aging – Now or Never?
So does that mean, if you’ve had a bottle sitting in the basement for 6 months that its prime time has come and gone? Not necessarily, just because a wine won’t get better with age doesn’t mean that it’s immediately become worse or that if you failed to pop the cork the night you bought it, that it has deteriorated beyond recognition. Most wines will hold themselves together for a good 12-18 months post release. As one might expect, the cheaper, value-priced wines tend to unravel the fastest. Wines that do benefit from additional aging are often aged in barrel or in bottle at the winery, before they are released, ensuring that they hit the shelves ready to rock.
What Makes a Wine Age Well?
Several key factors influence whether a wine will go the distance, becoming better over time.
The higher the tannin, acidity, and alcohol levels along with the more concentrated fruit components, the greater the chance the wine has to age well. There is a synergistic effect when it comes to aging wine, the more key factors that influence solid bottle aging that are found in a particular bottle of wine the more success the aging process is likely to be. Keep in mind that a wine’s balance, how the key components of fruit, sugar (and subsequent alcohol), acid and tannins play out on the palate, also significantly influence age ability. If a wine is off balance to begin with, showing high tannins and no fruit, or all acid and zero harmony with the other components, then the chances of it getting better with more time are slim to none.
High Tannins –
A wine’s tannins come from the grape’s seeds and skins, along with wood tannins from oak barrel aging. High tannins are not the sole factor in predicting age ability, but they do have some serious say. A firm tannic structure helps hold the wine together with bottle aging. The tannins will soften and mellow with age, typically losing their sharper edge and giving way to an integrated profile. Typically red wines that are intended to age well, tend to carry tannins that give the palate a run for the money, often tasting harsh in their youth, but promising to soften given bottle time. Examples of red wines that need time in bottle to tame the tannins are premium Bordeaux reds, Italy’s Barolo reds, high-end Australian Shiraz or Rhone Valley Syrah, Brunello di Montalcino, and super premium Cabernet Sauvignon from California, Chile or Washington.
High Acidity –
Acid plays a key role in a wine’s ability to age and maintains consistent levels in the bottle during the aging process. Preserving the fresh character components and maintaining interesting palate integrity along the way, wine’s with higher acidity can carry the wine further in bottle aging. Key examples of white wines with the acid integrity to age well include Germany’s best Rieslings, white Burgundy, Loire Valley Sancerre (based on the Sauvignon Blanc grape) and many higher end Semillon wines.
Often wines with elevated levels of alcohol tend to age better than their lower alcohol counterparts. Exceptions always exist and German Riesling has the acidity and sugar levels to compensate for lower levels of alcohol. While the great fortified favorites like Vintage Port or Bordeaux’s sweet Sauternes keep the aging process humming along just fine, in part due to the higher alcohol content.
Concentrated Fruit –
When a wine shows an interesting array of well-concentrated fruit character, it is likely that these fresh fruit components will develop and evolve in the bottle over time. Steering away from the ripe red and black fruit profiles, the once concentrated fruit leans often towards more savory notes of earth, spice and even leather offerings with time.
No wine aging conversation would be complete without a quick discussion on storing wine for the long haul. A wine’s aging potential will be obliterated if the storage conditions kill the wine before its time. Remember to keep wine stored well for the long term it needs to be in an environment that is consistently cool, dark, still and sideways.
By Madeline Puckette, WineFolly