In the past I have talked about how and where to store wine but today I will tackle the issue of understanding the time wine needs to reach its peak and the length of time a wine can be cellared before it begins to deteriorate.
The experts have conflicting views on this topic as the choices are somewhat based as much on opinion and perception as science. The one point that everyone seems to agree on is that most wine isn’t meant to age; in fact only 1% of wine should be cellared for a long period of time. Most wine is released within 2 years of the grapes being harvested and then drunk within 6 months of purchase.
As long as the wine is stored properly it won’t expire in the same manner as a carton of milk. It just means that there is no additional benefit to aging it. Generally, experts agree that there is a common misconception that aging a mediocre wine will transform it into something extraordinary when in fact it only become an average aged wine.
Some experts suggest that wines priced around thirty dollars and under are meant to be drunk within five years or so of purchase. After that time the wine may actually start to deteriorate and lose many of its qualities. Even the majority of wines priced over thirty dollars should be consumed within five years. However, my thoughts are that there are many factors that go into determining price and therefore a price threshold cannot be arbitrarily used to determine when a wine is suitable for cellaring.
More importantly, I find that vintner and reviewer notes are very beneficial when determining which wines to hold and which to drink. Most quality wines are made with aging in mind but so are some less expensive ones. It is the structure of a wine that determines how long it will last, not the price.
If you buy your wine directly from a winery you have an opportunity to ask the producers of the wine if the bottle you are buying will benefit from aging. They are the best people to ask how long they think it will last and should be able to give you some indication of the wine’s cellaring potential.
The winemaker’s techniques and style can have a large effect on how long you can age a particular wine. Not all wine is made in the same way. The structural elements are key to determining whether a wine will age well or not.
In red wine, acidity is an essential characteristic of highly rated, great tasting aged wines. As wines mature they lose acidity so there needs to be a high level of acidity in order to cellar it.
Tannin levels need to be moderately high but not so high that they overshadow the other flavours in the wine. You should still be able to taste the fruit, along with the grip-like sensation of tannin and bitterness on the front sides of your tongue.
The amount of volatile acidity (VA) must be low. VA will cause wine to degrade quickly. It causes 2 types of aroma compounds to become too high. One smells like acetone (nail-polish remover); the other aroma smells like bruised apples in a white wine and a nutty brown sugar-like note in red wines. VA should never be higher than 1.2 grams/litre (g/L) in any wine, and lower than .6 g/L in most age-worthy wines.
Most age-worthy wines need to have an alcohol level between 12% and 14%. This is necessary to prevent the oxidization that occurs in the bottle from degrading the wine too quickly.
In white wine a high level of acidity is necessary for longevity while alcohol levels need to be low to medium.
Aged wine isn’t necessarily better than young wine, it is just different. Time in the cellar can have a great benefit in transforming the wine from something fruit-forward with a tight structure into a mellow, yet complex drink. The colour, smell and taste of a wine will change. Reds lose their colour while whites gain colour and take on a deep golden hue. Acid and tannins drop away and fruit flavours become savoury, soft and rounded. Decanting aged wine has the benefit of letting the aromas and flavours mix with the air to bring out the very best.
Drinking a well-aged wine has a romantic appeal. An old wine gives us a way to re-experience a past year that had special memories, or maybe just to sit and reflect on life in general. Also, when a wine that was meant to be aged is drunk, the aging of the wine helps create flavours and textures that would never be experienced had the wine not undergone aging.