What allows a wine to last?
In order to stand the test of time and age well, wine must have a good structure and the right amount of sugar, acid, or tannin. These are the three preservatives in wine. Without a significant amount of any of them, most wines are better off being drunk at the next opportunity.
Sugar is clearly a preservative. If you grab a jar of honey from the back of your kitchen cabinet that has been hanging out for ten years, you would use it. At higher levels, sweetness increases the age-ability of white wines. This is why some dessert wines such as Sauternes and Tokaji (Hungarian,“Toe-Kye”) made with Furmint grape) have been noted to age for 50 or more years.
Like a jar of honey, an old bottle of vinegar (acid) could always be used in a salad dressing or for cucumbers (loved this as a kid). Just like with red wines, white wines with a lower pH (higher acidity), are more resistant to chemical changes that occur with age, including oxidation and the development of volatile acidity. While there is no exact pH that indicates age-worthiness, red wines that have higher acidity (a lower pH) generally last longer. A low pH acts as a buffer against chemical changes that break down wine including oxidation. Wines high in acid, like German Rieslings, Alsace French Rieslings, and Finger Lakes Rieslings, have awesome aging potential. Also Sémillon, Chenin Blanc, white Bordeaux-style blends, white oak-aged Rioja, oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc, and good Chardonnay. Some Albariño and other lesser-known regional grapes can also age well.
Tannin (astringent, bitter taste in wine) is the third preservative. but because it comes from the grapes’ skins, it is a factor in mainly red wines or skin-fermented whites, like orange wines. It’s the most common bottle in most cellars filled with high tannin wines, such as Bordeaux, Napa cabernet sauvignon, and Barolo. Tannins act as antioxidants and help preserve freshness in red wines. Of course, some wines that taste better in 10 or 15 years are a bit astringent when they’re first released. The more tannin and acid it has, the longer it can be kept.
Since white wines do not have anthocyanin (the red pigment), the rules for white wine are a bit different. White wines darken as they oxidize and thus, many age-worthy white wines start out nearly clear in color. White wines are usually over the hill (oxidized) when they turn yellowish brown.
Fortified wines are wines with added spirits (including Port) that have around 20% Alcohol by Volume (ABV). The fortification process produces some of the most age-worthy red wines of them all. For example, there are still some Maury (a French fortified sweet red) wines that can be found from the 1920s that are still quite vibrant!
A wine that isn’t complex to begin with won’t become complex with age.
What happens to wine’s flavor as it ages?
When wines are young, we taste their primary flavors, like grassiness in Sauvignon Blanc, plum in Merlot, or citrus in Riesling. We may also notice some secondary notes associated with winemaking techniques, like the vanilla flavor of oak or buttery from malolactic fermentation.
When wines age, we start speaking about tertiary notes, or flavors that come from development. This could mean young, bold notions of fresh fruit that become gradually more subdued and reminiscent of dried fruit. Other flavors, previously hidden by bold primary notes, come to the forefront, like honey, herbal notes, mushroom, stone, cigar box, licorice, and forest floor/earth.
What causes these changes? Nothing in wine is ever static. Acids and alcohols react to form new compounds. Other compounds can dissolve, only to combine again in another fashion. These processes happen constantly and at different rates. Every time you open a bottle, you catch the wine at another stage in its development, with new and different nuances. While the proportion of alcohol, acids and sugars stay the same, the flavors continue to change.
Courtesy of Wine Folly
How wine color changes with age?
As white wines age, they often evolve from pale lemon or golden to amber and even brown. Vivid salmon-hued rosés can take on onion skin tones as they age. As reds develop, oxidation often moves them from the purple end of the spectrum toward tawny or brown hues. While young reds can be opaque when held against a white background, mature reds often show a lighter color around the edges. This is known as “rim.”
Which wines can age?
It’s often assumed that only the finest, most expensive wines can age, but any well-made wine stands a good chance of developing.
Entry-level wines from good wineries can easily age from three to five years, unless they’re made for primary, aromatic appeal like an easy Moscato. Wines that have real concentration of flavor and a good balance of alcohol, acidity and texture, should age well.
There is no magic moment when the wine is ready. Most very good to excellent red wines evolve and soften progressively. They start out with limited fruit that is difficult to pick up and slowly transform into a supple, round, and more complex libation with vivid and pronounced flavors. Where a wine stands along this spectrum at any point in time is a matter of conjecture. The unpredictability of wine makes it all the more appealing and compelling. Buying multiple bottles and opening them up at different stages to see how they are developing is an expensive endeavor, but fun. With expensive, high quality wines, the simplest rule is to wait five to ten years if you have the patience.
If you live in a place where your home exceeds 70 °F (27 °C), using a wine fridge or underground storage is highly recommended. It’s been shown that fluctuating temperatures will accelerate aging at a rate of 4 times faster than the consistent climate of a cellar.
If you’re serious and hope to store wines long term, it’s a good idea to create a climate-controlled space with a constant 54° F (12 °C) and 75% humidity.
Cover Photo courtesy of Wine Enthusiast