If you’re even just a bit interested in wine tasting and collecting, you might be tempted to build your own wine cellar to try your hand at aging wine. It’s a romantic notion, after all: Go down into a cool, dark cellar filled with floor-to-ceiling wine racks stocked with vintage ports and older wines from all over Europe, and emerge with a slightly dusty but beautiful bottle of something amazing to share with your impressed guests. What could be better than an old wine that’s been allowed to mellow out for several decades?
Well, the truth is that the degree to which you enjoy that old bottle depends a lot on what kind of wine is inside and the storage conditions the wine was subjected to during its cellaring period. Not all wines age well, and many bottles on the market today are designed to be drunk right away (that is, within a year or two of being bottled). “New wines,” also known as “young wines,” are supposed to taste great right now, and letting them languish over the long term won’t result in better flavor; instead, it could quite possibly lead to something undrinkable.
So how can you tell which vintages to place into wine storage and which bottle to drink tonight for dinner? To make good decisions, it helps to understand the process of wine aging and the chemical reactions involved.
What Happens as Wine Ages?
The winemaking process is basically about turning an organic food stuff — in this case, different grape varieties — into a shelf-stable drink that won’t decay as quickly as the original fruit. Eventually all wines goes bad as bacteria work their magic and make it decay, as they do to every once-living thing. Yet this process is slowed way down by the acidity and alcohol; in the meantime, the wine’s flavors can change and develop — often, but not always, for the better.
The two major factors in determining how a wine will age are its acidity and its tannins.
Acidity — the tart taste that makes your mouth pucker — will decrease over time, so a wine worth cellaring should have high levels of acidity. As the wine ages, the acids will react with the alcohol; this will reduce the amount of acid overall and release esters, or aromas. The special aromas that take time to develop are prized by connoisseurs who love to age wine, and you can only get some of them after several years of the acidity breaking down and releasing these delicate esters.
On the other hand, too much volatile acidity is a bad thing when you want to store wine. This typically refers to higher levels of acetic acid in a wine. This type of acid is what you taste in vinegar, and it’s a terrible flavor to develop in a wine. This typically occurs when bacteria gets into the wine and transforms some of the sugars into acetic acid; the result is a sour taste and an aroma of nail polish remover.
Tannins are the other chemical component in aging wines. Tannins are chemical compounds in grape skins, stems and leaves that react with your saliva to make your mouth feel dry by adhering to proteins in your saliva and making it less slippery. That’s why high-tannin wines are called “dry” wines. Red wines naturally contain more tannins because they get their color from being fermented with skins on, but producers can add tannins to white wines by aging them in oak barrels.
During the wine aging process, tannins undergo glycosylation, which means they become connected to the sugars in the wine. This process makes the wine less astringent and “dry” feeling on the palate for a more mellow, complex flavor over time. For this reason, wines for aging should be relatively high in tannins at the start.
How to Store Wine to Let It Age
If you’re interested in trying your hand at cellaring wine, you don’t need an actual wine cellar to do it. Not many people have a stone-lined basement grotto they can outfit with hundred of shelves for keeping wine bottle for a long time. You might not even have a basement at all, let alone one that remains at a steady temperature for your collection.Fortunately, you don’t have to build a bona fide wine cellar to store quality wines for their entire lifespan. A dedicated wine fridge is an affordable solution for smaller spaces because it afford a lot of control over storage conditions — and it can look great in your kitchen or bar area while keeping your wines close at hand for convenience.To understand how to age wine in a wine cooler, you’ll need to look for the following features to make sure you can provide optimal conditions for wine aging.
Wines were originally aged in underground cellars or even caves because these places tended to maintain a steady temperature year round. An unheated basement without any windows or doors to let in outside air typically hovers around 55 degree Fahrenheit, and it’s no coincidence that this is also the perfect temperature for storing wine. This is cooler than room temperature but significantly warmer than conditions in a typical kitchen refrigerator, which is usually set at 38 degrees. Set your wine cooler between 52 and 57 degrees for the perfect temperature to keep wine aging well.
You’ve probably noticed that underground basements are far more humid than other rooms in your house, and humidity is another important element to wine aging. This is for the sole purpose of keeping corks in good condition. A dry cork will shrink and allow air to seep into the bottle, which can oxidize the wine and allow bacteria to enter, thereby speeding up the decaying process. Fortunately, a wine refrigerator set at 55 degrees doesn’t get as dry as a colder kitchen fridge, so relative humidity is automatically taken care of in all but the most arid places.
Look for a wine fridge designed to allow bottles to rest on their sides. This position allows the bottom of the cork to remain moistened by the wine, and makes it unlikely that they’ll shrink. It’s also an efficient way to get more wine into a small space while still allowing you to enjoy the label design and find what you’re looking for.Pro Tip: If you’re aging wine with screw caps, you don’t need to worry about humidity or bottle position.
Direct sunlight can shine through your wine bottles and degrade the wine inside, making it age too quickly and possibly develop off flavors. Using dark wine bottles will help, but it’s best choose a wine cooler with a door that offers some UV protection; this will keep your wine in cool, dark conditions for as long as possible.
Certain wines have a layer of sediment in the bottom of their bottles, and this can be churned up and distributed throughout the wine by excessive vibrations. For this reason, it’s a good rule of thumb not to move your wines around much when you’re trying to age them. You should also consider choosing a wine fridge that is designed to reduce vibrations from the compressor, which will keep sediment from being unsettled as the wine cooler cycles on. Look for descriptors like “low vibration” and “whisper quiet” to point you in the right direction.
Age-Worthy Wines for Your Cellar: Your Wine Age Chart
So what are the best wines for aging in your wine fridge? It turns out that only about 1 percent of wines are meant to be aged. The vast majority — especially those under $30 — are meant to be enjoyed within a year or two of purchase.In general, the best wines for aging are high-acid, high-tannin reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo or Bordeaux wine. You can also age certain white wines, although not for as long.To learn which wines age best and how long to keep them for optimal results, bookmark or pin our handy wine aging chart for reference:
Whether you’re a fan of California Cabernet and Pinot Noir or are ready to branch out into more unusual wines like white Burgundy and Rioja for aging, know that a wine fridge is an easy way to get started on this intriguing (and for many connoisseurs, addicting) hobby. You can ask the sommelier at your favorite wine shop to point you in the right direction, or you can use the chart above to make your own selections to stash in your cellar for a few years. If you’re really ambitious, you can also do your own tastings to determine which wines will age well based on their acidity and tannins.
Although not all wines age well, finding one you love can be a long-term experiment. Aging wine rewards patience, but with the right equipment and a little know-how you can increase your odds of success.
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