Not all wine is created equal. Whether you’re becoming a sommelier or you’re just an individual collector interested in wine storage or wine sales, you need to know not only how to age wine, but whether or not you should age wine.
This can be a complicated decision, as you need to factor in the wine varietals being used, their cost, and the general flavor profile involved. Then, you have to get into the aging process itself.
Keep reading to learn what happens when aging wine, what to avoid, and what makes a wine age-worthy.
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. Unfortunately, aged wine may also be more likely to set off red wine allergies.
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 a maximum of five years after bottling. That corresponds to wines with retail prices of roughly $40 and below (here’s a helpful post about wine bottle price). 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. For these, 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 the sugar in wine, wine alcohol content, acid in wine, 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 flip side 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 the 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.
Let It Age, Or Don’t
Not all wines are worth attempting to age and many can actually go bad. Avoid wasting time and money aging wine that wasn’t fermented for that purpose. Instead, invest in quality wine and drink it at the optimal time for flavor.
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. You should also pick up a wine pourer to make pouring that aged wine easier and avoid wasting a single drop.