The older the wine, the better. Right?
There are many people who believe that the older a wine is, particularly red wine, the better. This presumes that the wine has been in ideal storage conditions. Ideal storage conditions, by general consensus, are as follows:
- Temperature around 55° – 60° F
- Relative humidity around 50%
- Dark storage space
- Free of vibration and movement
Is this true?
In answering this question, I will first define age in the context of red wine. There are white wines that age well and improve with some aging but we’ll leave that for a future article. We have to look at why we age wine. Obviously, we are looking for an overall improvement in quality and therefore value. It makes no sense to allocate valuable real estate in your cellar to a wine that does not improve there but just does not deteriorate. No, a wine must pay rent in the cellar, meaning a wine you buy for say $20 will be worth say $30 -$50 or more 15 years later, not because of scarcity value but because aging has improved it!The ageability of wine depends on many factors. Among them are the following:
- Grape variety: Some grape varieties need and benefit from more age than others
- Growing region: Wine of some regions, usually cooler regions, age better than others
- Yields: Vines that have lower yields generally produce more age worthy wines
- Ripeness levels: Grapes picked at high sugar levels and overripe grapes tend to make wines that age more quickly and, most importantly,
- Intent: The style of wine the winemaker wishes to make. It is interesting that winemakers tend to use a higher percentage of new, small oak barrels for more expensive wines intended for longer aging. It is my experience that a surfeit of new oak on a wine, particularly in the new world, often makes wine more enjoyable in the shorter term at the expense of longer term aging, as the oak tends to dry out the wine prematurely.
As you can see there are many factors. I will now define what I mean by the various terms to describe maturity:
- Young: From harvest through 4 years
- Moderate age: From 5 years to 10 years
- Old: From 11 years to 15 years
- Very old: From 16 years to 25 years
- Venerable age: 26 years and older
These are arbitrary generalizations based on factors mentioned above. Suffice it to say that a classed growth from Bordeaux in a “classic” vintage may be young at 10 years and a Beaujolais Nouveau may be very old at 4 years!
So let’s look at aging wine. If you are like many wine drinkers you buy a good bottle in a good year and decide to age the wine. You leave it for many years and finally open it when it is very old. All too often these wines disappoint; they are too old, haven’t aged well, are browning, are somewhat “port-like” in character and simply are not at their best. You also have the sneaky suspicion that wine is past its peak. Has this happened to you? I wish I had $10 back for each bottle of wine I let get too old!
When you broach a very old or venerable bottle and find it poor, you don’t want to drink the wine. It is too old and often suffering from other problems associated with advanced age; oxidation, browning, a deteriorated cork, a hint of cork taste even though the wine is not technically “corked” – spoiled by the fungus TCA. So, what do you do? You throw out the bottle! You don’t wish to drink it nor serve it to your guests. Now what happens when you open a bottle too soon and the wine is too young? Well, the wine is still in excellent condition; it is just not at its peak. You enjoy it for what it is. You think about what changes would have rendered it even better with the correct amount of aging and you lament that a little. But you and your guests enjoy the wine! Also, if you still have additional bottles of the wine you can make a note of when to broach the next bottle.
Where did this notion of aging wines originate? Well, it’s hard to give a definitive answer but here are some. In the past we did not know as much about viticulture and winemaking as we do today. In those days some wines were not that pleasant on release; harsh, angular, and somewhat green. They needed time just to render them passably drinkable. Today our knowledge is so much greater and our tools so much better. Just think, the venerable bottles we are opening today are products of those former times. It is probably fair to say that the wines coming from those vineyards today are better wines. This is not true for all wines and all vintages but it is true! Many years ago, some families had the tradition of laying down a small stock of fine wine on the birth of a child. The wine was of the birth year of the baby and was handed over to the young man generally, or woman, on their attaining their majority – 21 years of age. I feel bad for the amount of over-the-hill wine lovingly handed over to these young adults. I wonder if it didn’t put some of them off wine for many years?
So, am I saying there is no gorgeous very old wine? Not at all. I have been privileged to have tasted some of the great bottles and some have been sublime, though not by any means all! Are there some wines that regularly will improve with 10 to 15 years or more? Absolutely, classed growth Bordeaux from good vintages and Barolo from good vintages come to mind. But, at the risk of being considered an iconoclast, here’s my best advice:
Do not age any wine longer than 8 to 10 years unless you have multiple bottles and have monitored the evolution by drinking one or two
Do not be afraid of opening supposedly age worthy bottles young. They will give you great pleasure even if they could have been slightly better with more aging.
In most instances, patience is not a virtue! Pull the cork!
Here’s what I say to my friends who are seriously committed to opening only very old wines; “Friend, if I am to be dragged kicking and screaming into court to answer the charge of high crimes against wine, let it be for statutory rape and not necrophilia!”
Want to try a wine with just the correct amount of aging?
Click on the bottle below.
Selected by Peter Koff MW
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