There is some sort of allure people have with aging wine. Like it's more sophisticated or something. And while some wines do become more complex with age, most wines are intended to be enjoyed within a couple years of being released, when the aromas and flavors are bright and in their prime. So, wondering if you've got a bottle that's good enough to stash away for a while? Here's how the wine aging process works.
The select few wines that deserve your patience are few and far between on a typical bottle shop shelf. The majority of wines on the market are best within five years of being released. When enjoyed in their youth, they are brimming with vibrancy and character. Over time, the primary aromas and flavors become muted, dull, stale, or even off. These wines don't have the tannins or acidity that provide the structure to benefit from bottle aging. So, what are the heavy hitters that need a hot second to come into their own?
Which Wines to Age
You might be surprised to learn that of the age-worthy wines, it's not just reds that can sit and develop for years; whites and skin-contact orange wines can as well. Certain grape varietals and blends with aggressive tannins benefit from some extra years to mellow out. Acidity also plays an important part in a wine that is going to sit around and develop because it helps to keep some of the bad bacteria at bay.
White Wines With Aging Potential
Some white or orange wines that display traits conducive to aging are chardonnay, chenin blanc, sémillon, Chablis, furmint, sauternes, and riesling.
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Red Wines to Age
Some red wines that fall under this category are cab sauv, Bordeaux blends, Barolo, tempranillo, sangiovese, and pinot noir.
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This is not to say all these types of wine should be aged, but, if very high quality, these varieties benefit from some extra time to evolve and become something really special.
Dessert and Sparkling Wines That Can Be Aged
Certain sparkling wines and dessert wines also can have characteristics that lend themselves well to aging. Traditionally-made bottle fermented bubbles that stay on the lees can age for many years, as the lees act as a natural preservative. Dessert wines with residual sugar also can age beautifully, with the sugar acting as a preservative.
What Happens During the Aging Process
During this time, a chemical reaction called polymerization occurs. In this process, some of the tannins bind together and settle at the bottom of the bottle, effectively isolating some of those particularly astringent characteristics from the wine. This occurs mostly in red and heavily skin-contact orange wines, as the tannins in wine come from the skin.
Another change that occurs in aged wines comes from slow oxidation. The long, slow exposure to oxygen via a porous cork is another key contributor to how a wine evolves as it ages. While oxidation is typically something you want to avoid with wine, when it occurs in extremely small amounts in a controlled environment, it can help to round out aromas and flavors in a wine.
Throughout the entire aging process, tertiary characteristics develop. Whereas a newly released wine will only display the fresh primary characteristics like ripe berry or flint, aged wines develop a whole new set of flavors unique to time. In a red wine these may come across as leather, forest floor, tobacco, wet leaves, savory, gamey or meaty, and earthy, while in a white wine, tertiary notes are more likely to be petrol, ginger, nutmeg, toast, mushroom, hay, kerosene, or honey.
The mouthfeel and color can also change during the aging process. Red wines become smoother and rounder, while whites can become more luscious and viscous. Reds that start out a vibrant ruby will fade to brick red or muted orange over time with the gradual exposure to oxygen. While reds become lighter in color and vibrancy, whites typically become more saturated, leaning into golden and amber hues.
How Long to Age Wines
If you've visited the cellar of an old historic winery before, you may have seen a cobweb filled corner with a collection of dusty bottles from long-ago vintages. If you ask, often the answer is, no, those bottles probably aren't good anymore, but they remain as a tribute and part of the cellar aesthetic. So how long should wine age? Assuming you have a premium bottle, it then depends on the grape or style, with some having more aging potential than others. Grapes with naturally higher acidity, tannins, or residual sugar, in the case of sweet wines, have more longevity in bottle.
So, a high quality cab sauv could easily cellar for up to 20 years while a Barolo could take 30 years. The wine is evolving during this whole time, so if you were to have a case and open one bottle each year, you would notice the differences in tertiary aromas and flavors. Longer isn't necessarily better--it just depends on your palate and which stage you find most compelling. Whites lack the tannins that reds have and therefore often rely on good acidity to push them through the years gracefully. Because of this, they typically don't age well for quite as long as some reds.
How to Store Wines for Aging
If you've got a nice bottle that you are going to set aside for 10 years or so, be sure you are mindful of the storage environment. Attempting to store a bottle in a space that is too warm or experiences a lot of rapid temperature fluctuation will have a negative impact on the wine and the aging process. You want to find a place that has a consistent temperature (around 55ºF [13ºC]), with moderate humidity, that is away from UV light. You'll also want to be sure to position the bottle on its side so wine remains in contact with the cork, keeping it from drying out and cracking.
Determining if an Aged Wine Is Still Good
It can be both exciting and intimidating opening a bottle that you've kept in your basement for the last couple of decades. If the wine truly had aging potential and was stored in the right conditions, drinking it is probably going to be a very intriguing and nuanced experience. In the case that you pour, smell, swirl, and smell again, and it doesn't seem quite right, use your best judgement as you would with any other wine. If you taste it and it's vinegar...well, pour it out.
A Whole New Experience
Drinking a well aged wine is a completely distinctive experience, and one that can be quite magical. The bouquet of aromas and flavors that are expressed are unique to the aging process, and there is no other way to smell or taste the same thing other than allowing the wine the time to develop and evolve.