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 www.cellartracker.com, 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.

2 comments:

  1. storing wine is a complicated process... wine cellars are good ways to do that..but you need to take care of the humidity & temperature

    ReplyDelete