What Wine When?
Why age wines?
As some wines age, they begin to reveal flavors once hidden from us. These are called "tertiary flavors". They can be acquired tastes because they are less fruity than most daily wine drinkers are used to. Aged reds taste more savory: dried tobacco, dried meats, earthy, mushroomy, nutty, caramel-like flavors. Aged whites can taste more like ginger, nuts, caramel, petrol, beeswax. For reds, the tannins also soften over time, resulting in a wine that is considered to be more "approachable" than it might have been in its youth. So you see, some people seek these aged wines.
Does that mean all wine gets better with age?
Au contraire! A wine mush have certain characteristics for it to age well. In fact, most commercially sold wine (95% or so I've heard) is made to drink within 1-2 years of bottling. So don't think your $10 red blend will be worth $100 in a few years. Most likely it will become a $2 bottle of vinegar.
What happens to wine as it ages?
Over time, a few things start to happen in a bottle. The most destructive thing that happens is oxidation. As wine comes in contact with oxygen (via the cork) the acetaldehyde converts to acetic acid, turning the wine to vinegar. A little micro-oxidation over time can be a good thing but this will be a balance between how much air gets to the wine and if the wine was made in a style to react well with air over time. Wine can be made in ways that not only protect it from oxidation, but result in a smoother more enjoyable thing in our glass.
Over years a wine will experience these changes:
Tannins fall out of suspension: The tannins in red wine start to chain together and that results in a less harsh and less tannic wine. No more of that fuzzy cotton mouth feel with a wine as it's tannins "smooth out"
Fruit characters diminish: Flavors change and fruit flavors turn into more savory flavors (aka "tertiary" flavors). Aged reds taste more savory characters: dried tobacco, dried meats, earthy, mushroomy, nutty, caramel-like flavors. Aged whites can taste more like ginger, nuts, caramel, petrol, beeswax.
What factors make a wine more ageable?
Some of the factors in a wines "ageability" give it a longer runway before that oxidation really has a negative effect.
- High acidity: Acids are a wonderful characteristic in wine! Acid, like salt, is a flavor enhancer! It's what makes your mouth water when you try something acidic. Acids diminish over time in the bottle, leaving a wine less vibrant and bright after a few years. Higher acidity gives a wine a longer runway before it starts to taste "flat".
- Tannin structure: Tannins in a wine (only associated with red wines due to skin contact) act as a preservative and reduce the effect of oxidation in a wine. So the more tannic a wine is when bottled, the more years of aging it has in front of it. Over time, tannins soften and chain together so if you think a wine is too tannic and "unapproachable" when young, that will change over time. As proven by some age-worthy white wines, tannins aren't always necessary for a wine to be ageable.
- Fruitiness: Fruit flavors, along with acidity, diminish over years so think about a wines flavor going into that long haul. What will be left on the other side? Those fruit flavors need to evolve into the savory flavors mentioned above. If you don't have much fruit going in, you won't have much to replace it with on the other side.
- Varietal: Some varietals are known to age better than others. For whites, Chardonnay, Semillion, Riesling can all age well. For reds, look for cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sangiovese, cabernet franc, nebbiolo, malbec, and syrah
- Alcohol: High levels of alcohol (in non-fortified wines) tend to cause a wine to turn to vinegar faster as it's a volatile compound. There are exceptions and fortified high abv wines can age quite well.
Sweetness: Did you know that a good Sauternes (sweet wine from Bordeaux) can age up to 200 years! Not sure what the sugar does but it doesn't seem to hurt these wines!
What can I do to keep my wine from going bad?
There are several factors that cause a wine to "age". If you want to preserve your wine as long as possible, make sure to keep it in the following conditions.
- Prevent oxidation: Keep it stored horizontal in a humidity controlled environment to ensure the cork does not shrink and prevent exposure to O2.
- Keep it cool: Ideal storage temperature for wine (red, white or other) is 55F. It's best not to have wide temperature swings also.
- Keep it dark and still: The less turbulence, the better.
When in doubt, drink that less expensive bottle young. And ask your wine merchant if you're thinking of aging that more expensive wine.