The ‘aged wine storyline’ has often been the stuff of television comedies – usually where the characters accidently swill an entire bottle of something bottled decades ago that is actually worth a fortune! The story inevitably ends in some sort of disaster for everyone involved.
In the British comedy Black Books for instance, the characters confuse which wines they are allowed to consume and which ones not to touch when they housesit for a friend. As a result, they drink a whole bottle of French wine worth seven thousand pounds that was meant for the Pope. When they realise their mistake, they attempt to create a similar wine to replace it from a cheap bottle and various other ingredients for flavour – which ends up killing the Pope!
But while amusing television plotlines and stories in the media about aged wine fetching huge prices at auction might lead you to think that any wine left untouched for a long period will improve over time and be valuable, the reality is quite different.
Most wines do not age well and are meant to be consumed within one or two years of purchase, and preferably within no more than five. These types of wines typically taste their best when young and fresh.
Some of the higher quality and pricier wines may last longer than five years, but it is really only the premium wines that are able to age really well, and even then only if the conditions are conducive.
Characteristics of a good ager
To age well, a wine needs a decent level of tannins (phenolic compounds), reasonably high acidity, and a good balance of fruit. Other factors involved can include growth conditions, soils, alcohol levels, residual sugar, oak ageing (which adds its own tannins to the mix) and good cellaring – meaning a cool, dark, undisturbed place with the right humidity levels, temperature, and capacity for controlled oxidation. You could in a way liken ageing a wine to hibernation, or burying a seed under the soil and allowing nature to do its work.
The ageing process
There are a number of factors involved in the ageing process.
- Tannins are derived from the grape skins and seeds, and to some degree from oak barrels – which can be especially good for whites. During the ageing process, the tannins react with other compounds in the wine, until they are no longer able to stay in solution, and form sediment. Anthocyanins (colour compounds) bind to the sediment, which means the colour of an aged red wine will lighten as the sediment falls. In the case of a white, the colour may change to a more golden hue as the wine oxidises, with tannins from oak often assisting the ageing process.
- Acidity in the wine comes from the fruit itself. Over time, acidity in the wine softens and mellows, so it’s essential that the wine has a good acid level to start with or it will spoil and deteriorate.
- Fruit gives the wine its flavours, so without a good level of fruit in the mix there won’t be enough flavour present to develop. Red grapes with thick skins are usually more suited to good ageing. Examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo.
Successful wine ageing results in a wine with softer acidity and more complex and intense flavours and aromas, which tend to be less fruity than in a younger wine. In some cases, a wine may be a fairly uninteresting Ugly Duckling after five years, but will transform into a Beautiful Swan after ten!
So there you have it! If you’ve just bought a dozen bottles or so of very affordable Italian white wines or Australian Pinot Noir, chances are you should enjoy them now, or within a year or two. But if you would like to try your hand at wine ageing, you will need a cellar, a good dose of patience, and some research!