The idea that wine gets better with age is pretty ingrained in the culture of wine drinking. But the truth of the matter is that most of the wine produced in the world today is intended to be drunk within a year or two of bottling. Those legendary bottles of fine wine that get dusted off and enjoyed after 10 or 20 or 50 years in storage are actually few and far between – in fact less than 1% of wines should be aged more than five years.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t seek out fine wines for “cellaring” – preserving in ideal storage conditions in anticipation of opening at some future date. Vintage wines are a great way to mark a special event like a wedding or birth. Or maybe you just prefer the subtler, rounder flavors of aged wine. Whatever your reasons, if you’re planning on stowing some wine away for the duration, you should have at least a basic understanding of what happens when wine ages, and how to choose wines that are likely to age well.
What Happens When Wine Ages
Why would you want to age wine in the first place? It’s all about the taste. A young bottle of wine has a flavor mostly of the fruit it is made from, possibly with a hint of oak if it was fermented in wood barrels. But when wine is allowed to age, many complex chemical reactions take place that reduce the fruit flavor and allow more subtle, earthy flavors to emerge – all those savory descriptors like “truffles” or “tobacco” or “meat juice” that connoisseurs like to when talking about old wine.
On the other hand, wine that has not aged well might end up tasting like nothing more than vinegar.
While creating a pleasing aged wine is as much art as it is science, science at least has been able to tell us a great deal about the chemical processes that take place during fermentation and aging. And thanks to chemistry, we know that the chief contributors to aging wine successfully are tannins and acidity.
Tannins in wine come primarily from grape skins and seeds, so red wines – which are left in contact with skins and seeds longer than white wines – generally have higher levels of tannins. Tannins are an astringent, and an overabundance of them in wine are what cause that dry, puckery feeling in the mouth when you drink them.
The acids in wine are responsible for the sharp or tart flavor, and it is an important factor in balancing the sweetness of the wine left over from the sugar in the fruit. Climate plays in important part in the natural acidity of the grapes – grapes grown in a cool climate (with a shorter growing season) tend to be more acidic than grapes grown in warmer climates. Some of the acid of the grapes is used during the fermentation process, and vintners can add acid during the winemaking process to achieve desired results.
Both tannins and acids in wine work as natural preservatives, slowing the natural process of oxidation. Wine will change in appearance and taste as it is exposed to oxygen over time – red wine goes from a deep purplish red, to orange, to brown; white wine loses the green tint of new wine to a more opaque gold-brown. The taste becomes flat a lifeless, more like vinegar than a proper fruity wine. But just like a lemon juice on an apple, tannins and acid in the wine keep it from oxidizing prematurely, so all those savory flavors mentioned above have time to emerge.
Over time, the tannins in wine form long chains with each other (“polymerize”). As they become larger and rounder, the compound molecules become too large to say suspended and precipitate out, forming sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The wine itself will taste and feel less harsh in your mouth, and you’ll be able to appreciate the subtler flavors that have evolved in the meantime.
Finding Fine Wines for Aging
When a bottle of wine has just the right balance of tannins, acidity and sugar, it makes a good candidate for aging. Unfortunately there is no easy way to predict with certainty whether any given wine is going to age well or not. The best you can do is educate yourself about the conditions that favor the production of good aged wines, or turn to a trusted expert who can make recommendations.
When it comes to choosing good wine for aging, the major factors that come into play are the region, the climate, the weather in any particular growing season, and the types of grapes. In general, grapes grown in a dry season (with little irrigation) will have thicker skins and less water, resulting in a higher ratio of sugar, acids and tannins and more aging potential. Regions with a shorter growing season also tend to produce wines more inclined to age well – the longer grapes ripen, the less acidity they have. That’s why European wines, grown in a cooler climate, tend to age better than US or Australian wines.
Additional factors that come into play are the methods used by the vintners during production – the length of maceration (pressing) influences tannin transfer, for example, and aging in oak barrels adds additional tannins to the grape juices.
It is a lot of information to try and sort out when you want to make a purchase. But you can get a bit of a head start by knowing which types of wine are usually reliable when it comes to aging potential. Red Bordeaux wine – wine produced in the region of Bordeaux, France – in particular is prized for its aging potential. Many Burgundy wines likewise will successfully age for decades. Other red wines to consider are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Among white wines, Chenin blanc, Riesling and Semillon (Sauvignon Blanc) are great candidates for long term storage in your wine cellar.
Storing Aged Wines the Right Way
If you’re going to invest in wines meant for long term storage, it only makes sense to invest in the means to store them properly. That doesn’t mean you have to dig a wine cellar under your house, but you do need some place to keep your wines where they are safe from temperature fluctuations, excess vibration and excessive light. All these factors will hasten the deterioration of your wine, and turn it into vinegar before the chemical transformation your are hoping for can occur.
To protect your wine, you need a place that is:
Cool – 55°F is the generally agreed-upon ideal temperature for storing wine, both red and white. A few degrees up or down won’t make too much difference, but keep in mind that the rate of chemical reactions in wine doubles with each 18-degree fluctuation in the temperature. The warmer your wine, the faster it will age. You also want to be sure that the temperature remains consistent – fluctuations in the heat will make wine age faster.
Vibration free – As wine ages, the tannins begin to bond together, forming long chains of molecules (“polymerization”) that eventually become too big to remain suspended in the liquid. These precipitate out, forming sediment in the bottom of the bottle. Excess vibration can reintegrate these sediments back into the wine. In addition, even low levels of constant vibration can affect the chemical composition of the wine, prematurely aging it unfavorably.
No direct light – The ultra-violet rays of sunlight will introduce free radicals into your wine, contributing to premature oxidation. That’s why the kitchen counter or living room wine rack is not the best place to keep that prized bottle!
Humid – When the air is dry, corks have a tendency to dry out and shrink, allowing too much air into the bottle. The increased oxidation can ruin the flavor of your wine. 70% humidity is considered a good value to keep corks in optimum condition.
A thermoelectric wine cooler is the easiest – and least expensive! – way to provide all these crucial conditions for long-term wine storage. Whether you want a small unit to keep just a few precious bottles safe, or you have a large collection you want to store efficiently, our wine coolers provide everything you need to age your wine to perfection.