Musings on Wine
Some General Comments About Aging Wines
The question I most often get asked about wine is how long a particular bottle will age. It's a difficult question to answer but these hints might help. More and more wines are made to drink upon release. Technology has provided winemakers with the tools they need, such as micro-oxygenation, to create wines full of fruit in youth with mellow tannins and softer acidity and seeing as wine drinkers today aren't as patient as their wine drinking ancestors, more and more wines of this style are being offered. Winemakers can now manage tannins and acidity in such a way that wines are delicious younger however these same wines often deteriorate faster than their predecessors would have if kept too long . This is especially true in younger wine regions such as the hotter, drier parts of South Africa, Australia, South America and California. There are, of course, many exceptions as you move up the price and quality scale and find yourself in cooler wine growing areas where acidity and tannin are naturally more robust.
Ten things I find very useful when judging wines for age ability.
- Wines must give you the impression of balance with some degree of complexity regardless of how young they are. In a young wine, fruit character may be hidden behind tannins that coat and dry your mouth or acidity that bites a little, however if the shy fruit can be found somewhere in the nose or mouth, you have to decide whether or not it will reveal itself in time. If the tannins strike you as too chewy and bitter, or the acidity green and sharp, they may never disintegrate enough regardless of how long you age the wine. The fruit will fade long before the tannins and acidity in wines such as this.
- Although alcohol serves to strengthen and preserve some wines such as Vintage Port or old dry Madeira allowing them to age for decades, a dry table wine with very high alcohol will still need adequate acidity, tannin and complexity to benefit from long cellaring. If a wine is obviously too boozy in youth but soft and round, it might be one to enjoy on the younger side.
- A wine that smells neutral and closed can become more expressive with aeration or aging. This applies to both young and aged wines. I find this to be especially true in cooler wine regions with mineral-rich soils. I recall opening a very expensive and rare bottle of already 10 year old Grand Cru Chablis only to discover it was surprisingly simple. What a disappointment! Luckily I kept two ounces of the wine in my glass as I proceeded through the dinner only to discover two hours later that the wine had finally emerged and was everything I'd hoped it would be. Good thing I didn't dump those final two ounces.
- In a related story, if a younger wine improves with aeration and warming as it sits in your glass, it is likely an excellent candidate for a long, slow maturation in a proper cellar where an even greater spectrum of aromas can develop.
- Wines destined to mature well will only do so if aged in a proper cellar. Although we don't all have cool, dark stone-walled rooms in our basements, the closer to that scenario you can get, the better. Aim for a steady 15 -18 degrees C, dark but safe and humid. Humidity can be accomplished by putting a large bucket or plastic pan of fresh water on the ground to allow the necessary evaporation to happen in too dry conditions. Keep in mind the biggest enemy of wines is severe fluctations in temperature and humidity.
- Don’t save wines for the special occasion that may never come. Drinking good wines when they are ready to drink is special occasion enough. Remember, the world is full of great wines and you've only got so much time to drink as many of them as you can!
- You are more likely to enjoy a wine consumed too young more than one consumed too old.
- As a general rule, good quality dry, white wines with adequate fruit and acidity can benefit from a minimum of 2 years and up to 8 years of aging. Good quality dry, red wines with adequate tannin and fruit will age well for at least 5 years and often as many as 12-15 years. Only in very rare cases do wines taste and smell better after 20 or more years.
- Ask yourself, do you like bright fresh fruity wines that might bite a little or are you willing to sacrifice some of the exhuberant fruit and vivacity for softer tannins, more polished acidity and additional tertiary aromas of dried fruit, leather, mushroom and old spice? Decide where on that scale your taste falls and drink what you like, when you want to drink it.
- Food will always change the way a wine tastes, generally for the better when properly matched.