Aging Wine

Over the last week, I have had the opportunity to open up some old bottles of wine with friends and family. The 30 year old Burgundy was still holding up, but the 1969 St. Emilion was over the hill. I had made a comment on Facebook, that a wine was past it’s prime, which generated a question…”Aren’t all wines better as they get older, and what do you mean by past its’ prime?”. I wrote about drinking or holding a wine about two years ago, but maybe it's  time to take another look.

First, not all wine benefits from aging. Matter of fact, most wines are meant to be consumed within a year of release. I've heard that the average wine consumer holds on to a bottle of wine for about 40 minutes (the time of purchase to the drive home and consumption). Wine is a perishable product, and due to chemical reactions within the bottle, and oxygen exchange through the cork, the wine will change, and eventually deteriorate. There are a number of factors that affect a wines “ageability”. These include the grape variety, the vintage, the vineyard practices, and the winemaking process, as well as the bottle closure (screwcaps versus corks).

The grape variety will determine the sugar (and ultimately the alcohol) levels, the tannins, and the acids. The vintage is all the affects of climate/weather on the vineyards, which can also influence the final wine product.

The key factors that influence the ageability of  a wine are: acidity, residual sugar, alcohol levels, tannins, and ultimately the flavor and aroma of the wine.

Acidity is what preserves a wine. Acidity determines the pH level of the wine. But, too much acidity can be a flaw. Acidity does not change as a wine ages, it is constant. So, if it has too much or too little to begin with, the wine will only show more of the flaw over time. Wines with high residual sugar will age if they have balanced acidity. Without acids, the residual sugar will make for an odd wine after aging.

Alcohol levels in wine must also be balanced. When I taste a wine, I feel the burn in the back of my throat, if the alcohol is not balanced. Alcohol does not change in wine over time either, so just like acid, it must be in balance.

Tannin is that astringent feeling you get on your gums, after swirling the wine in your mouth. Tannins come from the skins, seeds and even oak aging. We don’t associate white wines with tannins (except from extensive oak aging), but for red wines, it is one of the components that allows the wine to age well. Some tannins are “green” or even gritty. Unfortunately, these types of tannins rarely age well, and actually only get more concentrated. I look for ripe tannins, that will mellow over time, and contribute to a smooth mouthfeel.

 In general, red wines with high acidity (such as Pinot noir and Sangiovese) have a greater capability of aging. Additionally, red wines, a high level tannins (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah), will usually be wines will stand the test of time. The white wines with the best aging potential tend to be those with a high amount of acidity (Chenin Blanc, Riesling). The acidity in white wines plays a similar role that tannins have with red wines in acting as a preservative.

As red wine ages, the red color will eventually fade to a light brick red, and ultimately brown. White wines will also move towards golden, then brown. These changes occur due to the chemical and oxygen reactions of the phenolic compounds in the wine.

When I taste a wine, I am looking for concentration of flavors and aroma. If it’s not there in the beginning, it will probably never improve. As a wine begins to age,  the aromas will change to a bouquet. Where we tasted fruit in the young wine, now we might taste something more complex, with notes of dried fruit, and earth. The finish will be long and pleasant. However, there will come a point when the wine has reached is “prime” or “peak”, and will not improve any further. It will actually decay, and die in the bottle. The challenge is to try to hold a wine until it’s peak, and no further. There is no set formula for figuring this out, and for that reason, I purchase numerous bottles, and start tasting when I have guessed the optimum aging time (also you can check sites like, and read the notes of other tasters).

In the end, balance is the key. An unbalanced wine won’t age well. When you find a wine that is balanced with great intensity of all the key factors, that is the wine you want to age. The timing, though, is at best guess, and comes with a lot of trial and error. And, of course, it should go without saying....make sure you store the wine properly.

Christmas in the Air

Smells can bring back memories. To this day, I can go to Disneyland and smell the water on the jungle ride, and immediately flash back to being a kid. The same with Christmas. There are certain spices and smells that I always associate with Christmas. These aromas of Christmas go back to some European traditions. The smells of  a fresh cut Christmas trees, Gingerbread cookies, Stollen, fruitcake. The smells that remind me of Christmas are cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice and ginger.

Spices have a historic connection with the holiday. What did the three wise men bring to the baby Jesus on that first Christmas, besides gold? Frankincense and Myrrh....both spices.

And where does wine come into the conversation? For over 2000 years, wine has been associated with the followers of Christ, as a metaphor for blood. What could be more traditional than wine with Christmas. But, if you want to add the spices of Christmas, then you might be interested in a traditional winter drink made of warm wine and spices. The most recognized is known as Mulled wine (British), Glögg (Nordic), Gluhwein (German), or even Vin chaud (France).

Whatever you want to call it, this mulled wine is a drink that is slowly heated along with sugar, spices, fruit, and sometimes, brandy. Originally this was done to mask the poor quality of old wine (prior to proper storage containers). The wine had been sitting around since harvest, and started to oxidize, so the only natural thing to do was to add spices, sugar, and other ingredients, to help improve the flavor.

While recipes show up as early as 1390, there are so many variations, that not one recipe can be called traditional. The most common ingredients are:

One bottle of red wine (Beaujolais, Zinfandel, or Merlot)
One peeled and sliced orange and or lemon (if you use the peel, remove the white pith, unless you like bitter wine)
1/4 cup of brandy
8-10 cloves
1/4 cup honey or sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp fresh  ginger
Other potential ingredients: allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, anise, raisins, cranberries

For best results, you want to slow cook the wine. Boiling will accelerate alcohol evaporation, so slow cooking is best. A crockpot is the best way to assure slow cooking, and filling your home with the smells of Christmas.

 So, this Christmas, either recreate the smells of Christmas past, or create new memories for your family and friends, but most of all, have a Merry Christmas!

Tokaji Aszú - an "aha" moment

One of the joys of being a wine educator is when you get to introduce students to regions and wines that they might otherwise never try. This week we were studying Austria and Hungary, focusing on the main regions, and their historical wines. When we got to Hungary, the focus was on Egri Bikaver (Bull's Blood) and Tokaji Aszú.

As you might imagine, the Egri Bikaver garnered interest due to it's name and history. There is no bull's blood in the wine, but the Kekfrankos grapes does make an interesting wine that would be great with pizza. Where the "aha" moment occurred was with our last wine of the day, Oremus Tokaji Aszú 3 Putt. At the moment of tasting, I could literally see the students faces light up, and the conversation increased. This was a wine, unlike any others they had tried.

So, what is "Tokaji Aszú"? What is a "putt"? And, why is this an important historic wine?

Tokaji Aszú is a sweet wine from the Tokaji Hegyalja wine region of Hungary. This region is located in the north east corner of the country, next to the border of Slovakia. The main growing region is located on a plateau of south-facing slopes close to the Tisza and Bodrog river. The weather conditions are perfect of the development of Botrytis Cinerea, or "noble rot". There are a number of grapes grown in the region, but the two most important are Furmint and Hárslevelü, which will account for about 90% of the blend in the wine. The remaining grapes are: Sárga Muskotály (also known as Yellow Muscat), Zéta, Kövérszőlő, and Kabar

Noble Rot affected Furmint Grapes
No one is sure how long sweet wine has been made in the region, but written records show that it predates French Sauternes, and could possibly be the first "noble rot" wine produced. It gained worldwide recognition in the 18th century when King Louis XIV, of France, crowned it as "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" or "the king of wines and the wine of kings".

Gönc at Royal Tokaji
The production of Tokaji Aszú is also interesting. The botrytis affected grapes are individually picked in 20 to 25kg containers, known as Puttonyos,  The grapes are pressed gently under their own weight and the first run juice is referred to as eszencia.  This juice can be set aside to make the Eszencia wine.  The aszú berries are then very gently pressed and blended with a base wine made from ripe, but non-botrytised grapes, then fermented in large, 136 liter casks, known as "Gönc". The sweetness of the final product is defined by the number of puttonyos of paste added to a Gönc. This can range from 3 "putts" to 6 "putts". Above 6 "putts" the wine is called,  Aszú-Eszencia. The Gönc are traditionally not topped off, and the wine is left to slowly oxidize with the yeasts and bacteria. Alcohol content of aszú typically runs higher than 14%. The challenges of fermenting due to the heavy amount of sugar (500 g/l to700 g/l) in the Aszú-Eszencia, the alcohol content remains much lower. The Aszú-Eszencia wines are some of the most expensive wines in the world, often exceeding $1,500/bottle, but they are also able to age hundreds of years.Aszú-Eszencia is not really a wine in the conventional sense, but rather an elixir

Aszú is filled into Tokaj’s unmistakable trademark half-liter (500ml) colorless bottles that have remained unchanged for centuries. The wines are medium deep amber colored wines, with bouquet and the taste of coffee, honey, apricot, sun-dried fruits and a long finish.

Tokaji Aszú wines are traditionally served at the end of the evening or as an aperitif. They also pair well with white meat in sauce, game, blue cheeses, and desserts. Once opened, these wines can be kept for several weeks in the refrigerator. The wine should ideally be served between 50 and 54°F.


During one of my wine classes this week, we were discussing the wines of Italy. A question came up about Balsamic Vinegar. Now, I know my wine stuff, and I am pretty good with food, but I never really explored the world of vinegar. I do know (and have tasted many wines) that have turned to vinegar. So, I thought this might be a good subject to explore.

Vinegar [ˈvɪnɪgə]n  -  (Cookery) a sour-tasting liquid consisting of impure dilute acetic acid, made by oxidation of the ethyl alcohol in beer, wine, or cider. It is used as a condiment or preservative

There is a big difference between wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar (not to mention cider vinegar, and rice vinegar, etc). And, they are actually two different products.

Vinegar can be made from any fermentable liquid. The presence of the acetic acid bacteria (acetobacter) during the fermentation process of sugars to ethanol creates vinegar. In general, traditional vinegars, are fermented slowly over a period of weeks or months. The longer fermentation period allows for the accumulation of a nontoxic slime composed of acetic acid bacteria. Quicker, more commercial methods are made with a "mother of vinegar" that is added to the fermenting must. This process can quicken the production time to under 3 days, and usually used in more commercial type vinegars.

Wine vinegar is made from red or white wine, and is the most commonly used vinegar in Europe and the United States. There is a considerable range in quality, just as with wine. The highest quality wine vinegars are matured in wood for up to two years, and exhibit a complex, mellow flavor. The most expensive wine vinegars are made from individual varieties of wine, such as Champagne or Sherry.

Where things get interesting, and where the original classroom question came up, was with Balsamic Vinegars. Traditional Balsamic vinegar is a product from Italy, produced in the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy. The names "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia" (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia) are protected names, under the DOC laws of Italy, and the new PDO laws of the European union.

Balsamic Vinegar in cask
True balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grape must. The must is boiled, and reduced to about 30% of its' original volume. The resulting thick syrup, called mosto cotto, in Italian, is aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of successively smaller sized wooden casks. The casks can be made of different woods like oak, chestnut, mulberry, ash, and cherry. The juice slowly ferments, and concentrates over the years, producing a final product that is rich, deep brown in color with complex flavors which balance the natural sweet and sour elements of the cooked grape juice.

Reggio Emilia designates the different ages of their balsamic vinegar by label color. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label has aged for at least 18 years and the gold label has aged for 25 years or more.

Modena uses a slightly different system to indicate the age. A cream-coloured cap means the vinegar has aged for at least 12 years; the magenta cap bearing the designation "extravecchio" (extra old) is for vinegar that has aged for at least 25 years.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is very expensive (somewhere between $50 to $130 per ounce). Obviously, there are other Balsamic Vinegars out there, that are less expensive, but they are not the traditional product. These commercial grade products imitate the traditional product. They are made of wine vinegar with the addition of coloring, caramel and sometimes thickeners to artificially simulate the sweetness and thickness of the aged traditional product. Or, some of the better "copies" of traditional Balsamic are made using traditional methods, but are not aged as long, or start out using the traditional methods, and simply add "mosto cotto" to the vinegar, to thicken, and produce an imitation product in a shorter time period. Since there is no official standard or labeling system to designate the different styles of balsamic vinegar, it can be hard to tell their quality based on the packaging alone..unless of course is says, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia.