When you think of drinking wine at the appropriate age, what picture comes to mind? Usually it is a red wine. Maybe a decanter is involved? It’s a special occasion or with friends and family.
However, not all wine is designed to age a long time. I have heard so many stories of people saving a bottle of wine that they were given as a gift only to open it at some far later date to be absolutely horrified by what they smelled and tasted in the bottle. I’ll tell you a secret. Most wine is not meant to age beyond 1-2 years. However, I will also tell you that you can probably figure out what type you are dealing with if you understand a bit about what makes wine appropriate to age.
How Do Wines Age?
Wines age quite a lot like humans do. They go through a youthful phase, the prime of middle age, and the elegant sunset of old age.
A youthful wine will still have bright fruit aromas, called primary aromas, and a core color without any browning leaving pure lemon-green in white wines and purple, sometimes blue, hues in red wines on the rim of the wine.
Wines in middle age are known as having developing aromas. This is when the primary aromas start to be complemented (or not) by secondary aromas from the winemaking process such as oak spice or toast from lees as well as the beginning of bottle age aromas. The bottle age aromas are called tertiary aromas and usually show up in Cabernet as dried figs, nutty characters, or cedar characters. Each variety has its own tertiary aroma signature as it ages. Wines in middle age often start to show a browning on the rim which translates as gold in white wines or garnet in red wines.
Wines coming to the end of their age cycle will be largely defined by their tertiary aromas with the rare exceptions of truly amazing wines which may still hint at the primary fruit of their youth. White wines of this level will likely be quite gold edging towards amber colored, while red wines are fully garnet with tawny colored rims. This cycle’s timing depends on the wine and its key components which help the aging process.
What are these key components? Tannin, acid and sugar.
What is tannin? Tannin is an antioxidant compound found naturally in grapes, and these compounds are transferred into the wine during the fermentation process. White wines have very little to no tannin which is why it is usually red wines that come to mind when one thinks of long-term aging.
Tannin naturally protects the wine from oxygen which, as a wine ages, becomes more detrimental to wine quality. Wines with high levels of natural tannin are better prepared to withstand these effects of aging. Just like sunscreen protects us from the UV rays of the sun, the tannins protect the wine from oxygen thus slowing its maturation and allowing it to age more slowly. The higher the level of natural tannin, the more intense the protection which is why Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo age so well.
How does this explain how Pinot Noir, a relatively low tannin variety, ages so well? Keep reading…
Like tannin, acid is a key component of aging. A low pH coming from high acid levels contributes to the microbial stability of a wine. More importantly it also chemically slows the rate which oxidation reactions can occur which continues to decrease with an increasingly lower pH. Therefore wines with low pH age more slowly and have an increased life span than wines with higher pH if all other components are equal.
Low pH is one of the main reasons that Rieslings and some Semillons age so well, as well as low-tannin reds such as Pinot Noir. They are low in tannin, but also relatively low in pH which allows them to age more slowly.
High levels of sugar are very helpful to aging. This comes down to osmotic pressure.
What is osmotic pressure? Say you have a yeast cell. That yeast cell has a very low level of sugar inside it. Then you put it in an environment that is very high in sugar. Cells naturally want to create an equilibrium between the inside and the solution that surrounds them. All the water rushes out of the cell and poof, no more yeast cell.
The high level of sugar (plus pH as mentioned above) protects the wine from refermentation. A lack of microbial activity increases a wine’s ability to age further.
Now, when we say high sugar we are not talking about White Zin which usually runs around 26-35 grams per liter. We are talking 80+ grams per liter of sugar. For reference, Sodas can run a little over 100 grams per liter.
However, sugar alone will not help a wine. It needs to be sugar plus a low pH on a top quality wine. Think Botrytis affected wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji or Trockenbeerenauslese. Icewines also benefit from this protection.
Wines with at least two of the above three components will have a better chance of long term aging success than wines with only one or none of the above. That being said, the wine needs to be a style which will improve or get more interesting with age. Varieties such as Muscato really benefit from being youthful when consumed so they should be enjoyed while still fresh and fruity.
However, if you happen to like the characters of 10-year-old Muscat, then that’s great! Drink wines when you want to enjoy them, in whatever stage of life they may be. Don’t wait for the perfect moment when that moment may be now, if that is when you want to drink that special bottle.