To Age or Not To Age

April 10, 2019


Aging wine can be the ultimate test of patience for wine advocates.  Aside from testing one's self control, there are many misconceptions swirling around the practice.  Aging wines on your own doesn't have to seem like a complete impossibility.  Knowing a few key facts and techniques will help demystify the practice of aging wine.  


Of all the wines in all of the world, only about one percent is suitable for long aging.  The ability of some wines to blossom over time lies primarily in a wine’s level of sugar, acid, and tannin.   All of these structural aspects help determine if a wine will succeed in aging.  Not only these factors, but where the grapes are grown, the winemaking practices, and the aging practices influence the ability of a wine to stand the test of time. The biggest mysteries and misconceptions around aging wine involve the reasons for doing it, how to actually age it, and which wines are suitable for age.  


Wine is very much alive.  Because of this, it will change over time.  So, why take a perfectly good wine and hide it away for ten or more years? The aging changes that occur in the wine bring it more complexity, smoothness, and a more interesting variety of flavors and aromas. The cork sealing the wine in the bottle is porous.  This porous nature allows for slight amounts of oxygen to penetrate the wine slowly over time.  By introducing this oxygen to the wine, chemical changes occur with the wine’s composition.    


There are essentially three elements of wine that change due to the aging process. The aromas (after aging now called bouquet), flavors, and mouth feel. The aromas change because the esters that create aromas are going through a chemical change.  The small amounts of oxygen creeping in from the cork are doing this. Instead of fresh fruit, flowers, and herbs/spices, we start to see dried fruit/flowers, and crushed herbs/spices. The flavors are going to be changing in the same way and will match the bouquet. The mouth feel is the balance of all of the structural elements of the wine. The tannin is going to experience a change, as well. The phenolic compounds (fancy word for tannin) start to break apart and "fall" out of the wine. This process makes the wine feel more smooth and less grippy/rough.  This process is called polymerization.  Whip that word out, if you really want to impress your friends!  


We know what aging does, but how to do it without ruining the bottle is the key. Wine is notoriously easy to destroy if not stored properly. The villains to wine are heat, uv light, excess motion, and too much oxygen.  Cellars are ideal for aging wine. However, if cash is tight and you just want to find a place that meets these requirements, there are guidelines to follow.  Look for a place with a temp of about fifty-five to sixty-five degrees (just make sure there is air conditioning), a spot where bottles won't be moving around, away from light, and have the bottle laying on its side with the wine touching the cork to avoid too much oxygen. It's really that simple. There are some pretty extravagant misconceptions about rotating bottles and paying thousands of dollars to age wine "pristinely."  However, if you stick to these tips, you will have just as much beautifully aged wine as any millionaire out there.


Now, you know what happens to the wine, but the trick is choosing the right bottles to age. You go to all this time and trouble to age a special bottle of wine to find ten years later it's vinegar. It's because we are dealing with the one percent. There are traits only certain wines have that make it them aging candidates. The main things that change are aromas, flavors, and tannin. So, you want a wine that will have enough of these elements in order to gain complexity instead of just falling apart over time.


Here's an example. You have a cheaply made bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough enclosed with a screw cap. You have a no expense spared full bodied, tannic, and powerful Cabernet blend from Bordeaux with a traditional cork. The Sauv Blanc most likely won’t have enough structure and complexity to stand up to steady oxygenation over time.  Essentially the wine will fall apart before gaining any positive change of flavor and aroma.  Not to mention, the screw cap will most likely let too much air into the wine and cause more rapid oxidation.  Long story short, the wine is made to be enjoyed in a more timely manner.  The high quality Cab blend from Bordeaux is the perfect candidate.  This wine is produced in an area where the climate, vineyard, winemaking, and aging practices all come together to produce a wine that has a lot of tannin, acid, and phenolic compounds.  Because of this, the wine can see twenty and up years of age and receive the benefits of aging.  


So, there is no need to be intimidated by aging wine.  Find the right spot, and hide away the right bottles, and really see what wine is capable of.  The virtue of patience will surely be rewarded.      


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