Aging wine (or “ageing” in traditional English prose) isn’t for everyone, nor is it for every wine. However, when it is done right, the pleasure received is immeasurable.
Less than 10 percent of all wines produced have the ability to improve with age. This includes most selections available at the grocery store not on the top two shelves. Wineries create these ready-to-drink products with the intention that they will be consumed within 1-2 years of release.
Embracing aged wines came about after the invention of glass bottles and corks in the 17th century. Prior to that, wine meant for personal enjoyment was kept in oak buckets and turned sour quickly. Those who could afford it drank the freshly fermented juice and would sell off the remainder on the cheap.
Oenologists of today understand a great deal about what components to look for in an age-worthy red or white wine. Tannin, acid, and sugar all act as preservatives; however, the mystery of knowing when to open a bottle at full maturity is something that may never be truly solved. Collectors’ infatuation with this element of wine is exactly what makes it incomparable to any other beverage.
Over time, red wine tannins intermingle with oxygen, forming chains of protein that eventually grow large enough to fall out of solution as evidenced by the sediment you see in older bottles. This reaction softens the wine while making it more harmonious with its other components. Vintage Ports are famous for their age potential, and sediment, which allows the true expression of the vineyards from which they come to shine.
High acid white wines, such as German Rieslings, also are known for their ability to age. They have little or no tannin, but the acid component helps to sustain the wine. Compare this process to pickling food for preservation. German Rieslings from good years and great vineyards can lay down successfully for 20 years or more.
Sweet wines such as a French Sauternes, Hungarian Tokaji, or German TBA have large amounts of residual sugar that protect the fruit from early spoilage. The natural acidity in these wines also assists with the aging process and, of course, the overall enjoyment of these extraordinary wines.
Wines that are worth maturing, contrary to common perception, do not ever really hit a peak; they simply change over time. Maturing wine is more akin to a lifetime than a planned ascent up a mountain. Grapes are picked from the vine and end up somewhere completely foreign to their origin, though clearly showing hints of where they came from and how they were cared for throughout their voyage in the bottle.
Proper storage conditions are paramount to extended bottle aging.
Cooler temperatures, the recommended range being 55-58 degrees, allow wine to develop slowly, which in turn creates maximum complexity.
Direct sunlight deteriorates wine, as can vibration. Humidity in the 75 percent range is also advised to keep corks from drying out.
Experimenting with aging wine is as simple as locating a wine that has the ability to age, buying six bottles, and stashing them away in the coolest, darkest portion of your home. Each year taste the wine and purchase six more bottles of the same label. Continue doing so until the sixth year when you only have one bottle remaining from your original purchase and open it alongside a bottle from each year you have been collecting. Tasting different vintages of the same label is called a “vertical tasting” which provides the best education on what bottle age does to a wine.
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