One of the most common questions I am asked, as a sommelier, is whether a certain wine is ready to drink now, or should it be stored away for later? Well, the answer will involve going back to my previous articles on tasting. If you are comfortable with the steps in tasting a wine, then you will have a better idea on how well a wine will age.
First, if you are buying the wine at your local retailer, and have not tasted it, you should know that over 90% of all wines are produced and released, ready to drink. I heard somewhere that the average aging of a wine, purchased at a local retailer, is about 40 minutes (the time to drive home, and open). Another thing to understand is that it is just as easy to age a wine for too long, as it is to age it for too little time.This is where your expertise at tasting will suit you well.
Some general things to keep in mind: 1) expensive wines can usually age better than inexpensive wine; 2) red wines are more likely to improve with age, than white wines (but there are a lot of exceptions); 3) if not stored properly (a subject for another article) aging may actually ruin a nice bottle of wine.
So how do we determine the potential ageability of a wine? There is no definitive answer, but we can make an educated guess, based on our tasting profile, and those handy little vintage charts that are available in many wine magazines and websites. High rated vintages (year that the grapes were harvested) would give an indication of higher potential. When you taste, take note of the acidity, tannins, alcohol, and residual sugar levels. On those nose, take note of the primary fruit aromas, versus the more complex aromas of a developing bouquet.
In general, when you smell a wine, you may get a lot of fruit (primary aromas) on the nose. This is an indication of youth. As you move into more "non fruit" related aromas (called secondary aromas) these are signs of aging. Primary fruit, with no secondary aromas, might mean there is aging potential...but not always. As wines age, they gain complexity, while losing fruitiness. Most white wines are made to preserve and emphasize fruit aromas (and some reds like Beaujolais Nouveau for example) are meant to be drunk now. We need to look at some other factors, other than just smell. Tannins, acid and alcohol all have a role in determining a wines' future potential. All three of these components act as preservatives that prevent a wine from oxidizing. As wines age, chemical processes within the wine cause the tannins to soften and actually settle out as sediment. The trick with tannins is how they taste. I find that many tannins taste "green" to me, and I find that green tannins, stay green even with aging. Look for ripe phenolics in your tannins. High alcohol in wine, acts to prevent the processes associated with oxidation (the main reason wines were fortified for long boat journeys back in the early days of wine export). Acid, like tannins and alcohol, is a preservative, but acts to balance the fruit component in the wine. Wines high in acid but with a strong core of fruit are perfect wines for aging. Over time, the acid will act to maintain the structure of the wine allowing the wine to age more gracefully. Just remember that acid does not change in the same way that tannin does. The wine will need more fruit to balance the higher acidity. Residual sugar also helps to balance acidity. This last point explains why white wines, like German Rieslings, and dessert wines (Sauterne and Tokaji, for example), age so well.
One other thing to keep in mind is the size, or format, of the wine bottle. The standard wine bottle is 750ml. Each bottle will have a little head space of oxygen (known as ullage). Since oxygen is the greatest threat to aging, the amount of ullage in larger formats (1.5l or higher) versus regular sized bottles means less oxygen exposure. Larger formats age better.
Remember, that when determining whether or not a wine will improve with age, trust your tasting notes. Talk with your local retailer, or review the write ups in your favorite wine magazine to find out which wines have potential, then buy more than one bottle. Store the wine properly and taste a bottle every so often. Make tasting notes on how the wine is developing and changing over time, and enjoy the journey!