One thing that sets wine apart from everything else we eat and drink is that it can get better with age. That’s usually the opposite for other stuff. But if you have ideal wine cellar lighting, an optimal wine storage temperature, and the right wine storage furniture, you can create magic.
But even experienced wine collectors—to say nothing of casual wine enthusiasts with small collections—don’t have a great idea of what wines would benefit from aging and how to go about doing it.
Thankfully, it’s not too complicated. Each to-age-or-not-to-age decision can be cleared up with some definitive information. Below we cover what makes wine worth aging, how long to age your wine, and what the best types of wines to age are. And at the end, there’s a convenient aged wine chart that sums it all up.
But first, let’s get a hold of why we’re even doing this. Why is aged wine better? How does aged wine improve? And does all wine improve with time?
Read on, collector.
Does Wine Get Better With Age?
Yes, as a rule, wine gets better with age. But there’s a difference between a winemaker aging wine barrels before they’re bottled and a private wine collector aging wine bottles in a home cellar.
Does All Wine Get Better With Age?
All wines are, to an extent, aged. It happens during the winemaking process. Some red wines are aged about 1 to 2 (and sometimes more) years before bottling and many white wines less than that. After fermentation, the wine is aged in stainless steel, oak, or ceramic vessels. Given that aging is a part of the winemaking process, it can safely be said that all wine gets better with age. That's because the change wine endures during aging is a purposeful, built-in part of the winemaking process. But the story changes once the wine is bottled.
Why Does Wine Get Better With Age?
The creation of wine depends on the chemical composition of grape juice changing. That change is an ongoing process. It never stops, no matter what precautions you take. That’s why, while some wines can last a hundred years, they don’t last forever. Eventually, too much change will occur. But somewhere on that continuum of a wine’s ever-changing composition is a sweet spot, an optimal drinking window. Every wine has one. It’s the window of time when the chemical composition is such that the flavor profile, color, mouthfeel, and aroma are all exactly what the winemaker intended. The end of such a window is known as the drink-by date.
But what actually happens to a wine during the march toward its drink-by date?
How Wine Ages and Improves
Within wine are what are called phenolic compounds. They’re a large group of chemical compounds that affect the taste, color, and mouthfeel of wine. 90% of the phenolic content of red wine comes from grape stems, seeds, and skins during the maceration process. Tannins in wine are the most well-known phenolic compound.
Beginning during fermentation and after bottling, the phenolic compounds in wine start cohering together. With time they form into large groups. Sometimes those groups get so big that their increased weight prohibits them from remaining suspended in liquid. They fall to the bottom as sediment.
These phenolic compounds attach themselves to each other, conglomerate, break apart, become sediment, and generally change their configuration over time. That alters our sensory experience of the wine.
Does Wine Age in The Bottle?
Yes, wine does age in the bottle. But not every wine should be purposefully aged in its bottle. 90% of bottled wines are meant to be drunk right after bottling or at maximum five years after bottling. That corresponds to wines with retail prices of roughly $40 and below (here’s a helpful post about wine bottle pricing). After around five years the composition of the phenolic compounds fundamentally alters the wine’s character.
But some wines do age well past that five-year mark.
What Makes Wine Age-Worthy?
There are two types of wine you can age. The first are wines that are meant to be aged. The second are wines that are more resistant to developing wine faults when aging: after years in a cellar, they won’t be optimal, but they’ll survive and still generally be the wine you purchased.
Regarding the second group, wine enthusiasts widely agree—and sommelier classes usually teach—that whether or not a wine can be aged isn’t cut-and-dry. But the wine community has settled on four traits to look for in wines that make them better aging candidates. Those are sugar level, alcohol level, acidity, and tannins.
- The higher the sugar, the more age-worthy the wine. Some ports and fortified dessert wines have almost 10 times the sugar as a Cabernet Sauvignon, and some of them are able to age upwards of 100 years.
- If a wine isn’t fortified, meaning that a distilled spirit isn't added to it, then its alcohol content is unstable and can more easily turn into acid. That makes it taste vinegary. Non-fortified wines with lower alcohol content are able to age better and longer because of this.
- On the flipside of that, non-fortified wines that are purposefully more acidic have extra protection against all those unstable ethanol molecules. The more acidic a wine, the longer it will last in a cellar.
- Tannins are aggregations of compounds that give wine its bitterness and astringency. Those robust characteristics act as the structure for sweet, fruity, tart, floral, and other flavors to orbit around. As wines age, their tannins form into such huge groups that they end up sinking to the bottom of the bottle. This basically takes them out of the wine’s composition, smoothing (or dulling, depending on your perspective) the flavor profile and mouthfeel. Which is to say: aging a tannic wine won’t cause prohibitive tannin-related wine faults, the wine will just get mellower as the years pass.
How to Age Wine
First, you’ll need to follow the basics and best practices of wine storage. Then you can start thinking about duration.
Coates’ Law of Maturity, created by British Master of Wine Clive Coates, is a simple, widely-accepted rule for how long to age wine. It states that “a wine will remain at its peak or optimal drinking quality for a duration of time that is equal to the time of maturation required to reach its optimal quality.”
Let’s say someone acquires a wine when it’s four years old, but they find it one-dimensional and unexciting. One year later, that same person opens another identical bottle and discovers it has fuller, rounder, and more interesting flavors and aromas. Using Coates’ Law of Maturity, that wine can continue to be aged and drunk at optimal levels until it's 10 years old.
Wine experts have routinely tested Coates’ assertions and been generally unable to compellingly disprove it. It’s how to age wine simplified, and anyone wondering how long to age wine makes their lives easier by following it.
What Are the Best Wines to Age?
Wines with the best structure age the most gracefully. And since structure is usually imparted by tannins, which are in turn imparted by grape skins, stems, and seeds during maceration, those tend to be red wines.
Here are some of the best wines to age (both red and white), followed by a wine aging chart for easy reference. Keep in mind that each producer and vintage is different, and that the vast majority of wines bottles sold are meant to be enjoyed before they’re five years old. But of those that aren’t, here are some general guidelines to get the best aged wine you can.
Aged Red Wine
The best aged red wines tend to be Port, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sangiovese, monastrell, cabernet franc, nebbiolo, malbec, and syrah. Other full-bodied wines with robust structures will also age well, but we zeroed in on these nine as our top choices for the cellar treatment.
Aged White Wine
While white wines aren’t especially known to excel with aging, there are a few whites with firmer structures that like it. The six whites we’ve identified as the best candidates for aging are chenin blanc, chardonnay, riesling, viognier, white Bordeaux, and semillon.
Wine Aging Chart
Aged Wine: Uncommon but Precious
The best rule for how to age wine is to follow Coates’ Law of Maturity because it’s tailored to specific vintages from specific producers (each wine will have a different pre-bottling maturation period). So, whether you’re becoming a sommelier or you’re just an individual collector interested in wine storage, it’s straightforward and based on specifics.
But if you don’t have that information handy, you can use the years in the chart above and work backwards toward some approximation of Coates’ Law.
There are other ways to enhance the wine experience besides aging, though. Aged wine has a subtlety and mystique that are unmistakable, but if you’re just trying to make your wine the best version of itself, think about learning how to decant. Or using wine aerators. They’re simple, affordable, quick, and we’ve compiled some great lists of the best wine decanters and best wine aerators to make it easy.
Aged wine is great, don’t get us wrong. Just don’t age wine for the sake of it. You could be doing more harm than good.