There is a trope around wine that the older a bottle of wine is, the better it is. This certainly can be true to a certain extent, but there are always factors at play that affect how a wine will eventually taste after it has been aged. Generally speaking, there are two points at which a wine can be aged before it finally gets poured into a glass to be consumed. First, winemakers can age the wine in a variety of methods in a variety of containers before bottling. The second point at which a wine can be aged is once it is in the bottle. Winemakers will often hold bottles for a predetermined amount of time before release, and consumers can then further age a bottle in their cellars before opening.
Aging wine can simply be described as chemistry, as all of the changes (whether good or bad) that happen along the way are chemical reactions. Oxygen has the largest impact on wine throughout its lifetime. The trick to aging wine in a beneficial way is controlling how much oxygen is present. If the wine is exposed to too much oxygen too fast, it will turn both white and red wines into a brownish tawny color (think Madeira or Tawny Port). If there is very little oxygen present, the beneficial effects of increased aromatics occur very slowly. In red wines anthocyanins (color pigments) bind to tannins forming larger heavier compounds that precipitate out of the wine. This reaction is the cause of sediment in older bottles, as well as the color transition to a sort of brick red. Temperature is another factor that producers and consumers always need to be aware of. The ideal temperature for storing wine is in the mid-50s F, at warmer temperatures oxidation reactions happen faster, causing the wine to lose some of its nuances. Too low of a temperature and reactions start to run slower and of course, you run the risk of freezing which can cause bottles to break and quickly oxidize the contents.
There is a lot that can go wrong during the aging process, but there are a lot of things that can go right as well. There are a handful of factors that will help a wine age gracefully:
- Sugar: Sugars act as a protection from oxidation as they can be oxidized in place of tannins and aromatic compounds. This is why dessert wines, even ones made from white grapes can age for extremely long periods.
- Tannins: Tannins play an important role in the structure of red wines. As the wine ages, the tannins precipitate out of the wine with anthocyanins leaving a less perceptible tannic structure the older a wine gets. There is some evidence that tannins may help with preventing oxidation of the aromatic compounds of a wine, as tannins themselves take a large portion of oxidation reactions.
- Alcohol: Alcohol is somewhat of a double-edged sword, very high ABV fortified wines age extremely well and potentially longer than any other wine. That being said naturally occurring alcohol tends to have an inverse relationship with aging above 13 to 14%
- Acidity: Acid is a natural preservative (one of the reasons citric acid is a listed ingredient in almost every packaged food) this helps protect the wine. Additionally, perceived acidity declines with age so if there isn’t much in its youth, the wine probably won’t have enough 10 years down the line to be balanced.
Some of the most important factors to how a wine will ultimately taste are based on how the wine was aged at the winery before bottling. The winemaker can decide to allow the wine to stay in contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) to extract a creamy flavor and texture. There can be prolonged contact with the grape skins, extracting more tannin, color, and aromatic compounds. The different vessels that the wine is aged in will have vastly different effects on the wine.
Common Aging Vessels
The use of wooden barrels is perhaps the most iconic aging vessel in the world of wine. Their heavy use in top wines of France and Italy has caused a mimicking effect around the world. The most common wood used in barrel production is Oak, this is largely for the flavor profile that it adds to the wine. New oak barrels seep their tannins into the wine stored in them as well as their aromatic compounds. Barrels are often used to age multiple vintages of wine, the more times a barrel has been used, the less oak flavor will be added to the finished wine. The two main types of Oak used to make barrels, simply put, are European and American, both of which add their fingerprints. European oak tends to apply more subtle vanilla and caramelized flavor whereas American oak tends to push more coconut and even dill. You would find European oak in European wines, but producers around the world use imported barrels from France and Slovenia to attain the desired flavor profile. American oak barrels are also used around the world, most famously throughout Rioja and in Australia’s most famous wine the Grange. A major benefit to aging wine in Oak barrels is the small amounts of oxygen that the wood allows into the wine. This gives a winemaker control over the development of the wine both with imparted flavor and developed flavors.
Other than oak, chestnut wood has been used for barrel making with the most notable use in Italy. Chestnut doesn’t see as much use as oak largely because of more oxygen ingression through the wood. In the United States, producers once used redwood for storage and transportation, but that has almost, if not entirely disappeared. Producers like Charles Krug in Napa still have the original redwood fermentation vat on display at the winery.
There is a good indication that clay vessels were the very first vessels used in wine production, storage, transportation, and consumption. The modern use and even resurgence of Amphorae carry on the traditional use of clay in winemaking. Up until very recently, Amphorae were most famously used in Georgian wine production and had been used there for thousands of years. Classically it was common for these wines to be fermented and aged in the Amphora all the while in contact with the skin of the grapes. This long skin contact increases tannins and other phenolics and when done with white grapes it produces an orange-colored wine that is called amber wine.
Today there has been a somewhat viral spread in the use of Amphora for winemaking. Producers across the world have started using them for just about any variety of grape, even top producers like Pontet-Canet have invested heavily in a collection of Amphorae. There is good reason for using clay, it is a neutral vessel that won’t impart any flavor on the wine, and it allows for a small amount of oxygen to enter. Some producers make entirely amphora-aged wine, others use it as a part of a larger blend to add a more diverse flavor profile to a finished product.
Stainless steel is an important part of winemaking as a whole. It is easy to clean. It can be made into just about any size. It doesn’t impart any flavor on the wine, and can be made into an essentially oxygen-free environment. The versatility of stainless steel is one of the main reasons it is used in such a high volume around the world. Winemakers have a lot of control over temperatures, oxygen, and fermentations are easy to monitor. In regards to aging in stainless, the advantage is that the wine won’t change all that much while it is being stored in steel.
Important Stylistic Aging Techniques
Aging wine on the fine lees has become extremely popular around the world, most famously in the white wines of Burgundy. The extra contact of the wine on the yeast cells pulls out buttery brioche flavors and bolsters the body of the finished product. Lees are also used in the aging process for Champagne, once the secondary fermentation is completed in the bottle, the yeast die, and the wine is then aged with the lees before “disgorging” them out.
Flor is a naturally occurring layer of yeast that forms on the surface of wine if in the correct conditions. The layer of yeast feeds on the glycerine in the wine which drastically reduces the body. This style is most famous in the production of Manzanilla and Fino Sherry but is also commonly found in Hungary and Vin Jaune from Jura in France.
This is another aging style popularized by sherry. A solera is a way to create a multi-vintage blend by creating tiers (criaderas in sherry) that one would move wine across as a new vintage is added but never fully draining each tier. The winemaker then draws wine from the final tier into bottles. This in theory would mean that every bottle that comes out of a solera could potentially contain wine from the very first vintage. Outside of sherry, one could find Solera-aged wines in Champagne and Madeira neither of which require the use of soleras.
Intentionally oxidizing wine is fairly common among dessert wines and aperitif styles. Some popular examples including Tawny Port, Vin Santo, and Marsala. The high level of oxidation creates flavors of nuts and caramelized sugars. To take it to the next level Madeira is somewhat unique in the world of wine, the wine is not only intentionally oxidized to a high degree, but it is also stored at warm temperatures to essentially cook the wine. The method is so iconic to the style that the process of heating wine or describing the flavors of overheated wine is referred to as maderized wine.
So is an older bottle of wine better than a younger bottle? The short answer is “it depends”. There are so many factors and decisions that go into aging wine. The vast majority of wine doesn’t need long periods of time in a cellar to improve, and most would actually get worse after the first year or two. But the wines that are built to age, often don’t peak for years. So consider what you know about wine and how it ages before deciding whether any specific bottle belongs in long-term cellaring or if you should just pop it open now.
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