Spoiler alert! - most wine isn’t meant to age. A lot of wine is released within 2 years of being grapes in a vineyard and then opened and drank within 6 months of purchase.
Wine professionals, those in the trade and some wine lovers are familiar with the concept of aged wine. They understand that older bottles can improve. Some people invest time and money collecting and storing wines for years at a time, in the hunt for that perfectly aged bottle.
But what happens to wines when they get older? Do they all improve with age? What is it about an older wine that makes it so desirable? As I’ve mentioned, most wines aren’t meant to age, but all wines do undergo change.
In this post I’ll talk about aged wine and its journey through life, touching on changes to flavour, texture and colour etc. I do not intend to make this a technical piece so bear with me if I stray a little.
What happens to the flavour of aged wine?
I have written previously about the levels of flavours in wine. The flavour from the grape, the winemaking, and the aging process. To recap briefly,
When wines are young, we taste their primary flavours, like grassiness in Sauvignon Blanc, plum in Merlot, apricot in Viognier or citrus in Riesling.
We may also notice some secondary notes associated with winemaking techniques, like the vanilla flavour of oak or buttery undertones.
When wines age, we start speaking about tertiary notes, or flavours that come from development/aging. Flavours, previously hidden by bold primary notes, may come to the fore, like honey, herbal notes, hay, mushroom, stone, and earth.
Nothing in wine is ever static. But what causes these changes? These processes happen constantly and at different rates. Every time you open a bottle, you catch the wine at another stage in its development. While the proportion of alcohol, acids and sugars stay the same, the flavours continue to change.
What happens to the texture of aged wine?
Texturally, the wines also change. Dry, aged white wines can become almost viscous and oily, while reds tend to feel smoother. In red wines, this has a lot to do with tannins.
Over time, tannins in wine tend to precipitate out of the liquid and form solids (sediment) on the bottom of the bottle. As the tannins fall out of the wine, the structure becomes smoother and less harsh.
Historically, many red wines were too tannic to enjoy early in their life. They had to be aged for many years before they moderated enough to drink. Nowadays, modern techniques result in wines that are softer in their youth, reducing the need for bottle aging.
Still though, some fine wines from Italy e.g. Brunello, Barolo, some Bordeaux, and Spanish Rioja are aged before they are released for sale but can still benefit from further time being aged, after purchase.
How wine colour changes with age
One of the most visible processes in an evolving wine is slow oxidation. Colour is the most obvious indicator of this.
As red wines age, they become lighter. For white wines, the opposite happens; they become darker as they get older. People who like deeply coloured red wines are more likely to enjoy young wines because they haven’t yet begun to lighten with time.
While young reds can be opaque when held against a white background, mature reds often show a lighter colour around the edges. This is known as a “rim.”
What wine can be stored for aging?
Wines with the best structure age the most gracefully. And since structure is usually imparted by tannins, those tend to be red wines.
Keep in mind that each producer and vintage is different, and that most wines sold are meant to be enjoyed before they’re five years old. But of those that aren’t, here are some general guidelines to get the best aged wine you can. By the way, never age cooking wine, it's not worth the time investment as you'll burn it off during cooking anyway.
Red Wine: The best aged red wines tend to be Port, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sangiovese, monastrell, cabernet franc, nebbiolo, malbec, and syrah. Other full-bodied wines with robust structures will also age well, but I went with these nine as my top choices.
White Wine: The six whites I’ve identified as the best candidates for aging are chenin blanc, chardonnay, riesling, viognier, white Bordeaux, and semillon.
How can I tell if an older wine is still good to drink?
To tell if an older vintage is past its prime, use the same method that you’d use to judge any wine. Bring it to the correct drinking temperature, open it, pour, swirl and smell. If it smells good, taste a little. If you like it, it’s good to drink.
Red wines which have sediment should be stood upright for 24 hours before opening so the sediment can settle. These may also benefit from being decanted.
Some Things Never Change
During the aging process, not everything changes. Acidity, alcohol, and sugar, for example, do not change with age.
The general rule is that wines that are tart, highly alcoholic, or sweet will remain so throughout their lifespan - though their strength may seem to increase as the tannins diminish.
How long should a wine be aged? That depends on the taste of the drinker. Some people like wines fresh, with plenty of primary flavours, while others enjoy wines that some might find to be too old.
If you’re interested in older wine, or wines aged in advance, we can help you here in Green Acres. Personally, if you have the patience and interest, I recommend buying multiple bottles and opening them systematically every so often over time to see how they change.
Either way, whether you age bottles yourself at home or chat with the Green Acres Wine Team, I think that the hunt for a perfectly aged bottle may prove elusive but irresistible. Enjoy the journey!
Thank you – James O’Connor