Aging Wine: A Notion Grown Old?


Are you convinced that an understanding of aging wine is what separates a wine newbie from a connoisseur, a philistine from a sophisticate? And that such understanding is beyond you? Dismiss the notions. They’re bunk, archaic ideas that will only cloud your happy relationship with wine.

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Seriously, there might not be a more opaque topic in all of winedom than the aging thing, leaving too many people with the idea that truly great wines must be ageable and aren’t legitimately experienced until they are aged.

This is not to say that aging wine can’t sometimes yield beautiful experiences, wines that are transcendent.

No, the baloney is the idea that aged wines are as a class a higher form of wine. This is not true.

Aging wine can make a particular wine better, but few wines these days need to be aged and enjoying what young wines bring is every bit as valid as enjoying what appropriately aged old wines bring.

The thing is, the whole idea of aging wine developed in a different wine universe, the one that existed many decades if not centuries ago in Europe. Think Downton Abbey days, or earlier. Young wines were almost inevitably hard, bracing, astringent.

Wikimedia Commons / © Jorge Royan

Wikimedia Commons / © Jorge Royan

Time in the bottle, in a cool dark place preferably, allowed them to evolve and become palatable.

How did that work? Well, remember, wine is alive. All kinds of chemical reactions go on in the bottle. Oxygen captured in the wine compels many of these processes, over time making the wine softer while turning primary fruit aromas and flavors toward savory.

But that was then. Now, wines come practically right off the bottling line smooth, rich and full, with little in the way of hard edges. Even the priciest, most exalted versions of  traditionally aged varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon, now are quite lovely at a few years out, and certainly don’t require decades.

The usual explanation for this shift focuses on tannins, the idea being that growers and winemakers have figured out how to produce softer and riper tannins, the substances in wine that interact with proteins in the saliva, literally reducing the lubrication of the mouth.

Credit is given to in-the-vineyard advances like lopping off some of the fruit several weeks before harvest, which allows the vine to focus its energies on ripening the clusters left behind. Change has come in the winery, as well, with tannin-softening practices like pressing the juice off the skins and seeds before the fermentation is complete.

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Researchers aren’t sure about exactly how the underlying chemistry works, but in the end, it doesn’t matter: The vast majority of wines are softer earlier. And with softer young wines, the imperative to do the aging thing simply to make them drinkable vanishes.

Plus, many wine drinkers will find that when a wine does get old, they miss the vibrant fruit that has grown tired, and aren’t fond of the way reds fade from shimmering purple to pale with hints of orange, and whites move toward golden then brown.

That said, there are the 1 percent of wines that are definite candidates for aging. Vintage Port, for instance. Some top-end, racy Rieslings. Old-school Barolo or Bordeaux. Even some California Cabs. These wines will grow in complexity over time without surrendering all their vitality.

Here’s the takeaway: If you are moved to spend good money on a wine for the purpose of aging it, by all means inquire with the merchant or the winemaker about its prospects. You should certainly do this if you are looking for a wine to lay down for a new addition’s 21st birthday, or a distant anniversary,

For sure, if a wine is a candidate for aging you will want to consider buying several bottles. You do not want to wait ten, twenty or thirty years on a wine with no sense of how it is developing, only to open it and find it undrinkable. Buy a case or at least a half-case and pace your way through them, noting how they are progressing, recalibrating the prospective drinking horizon as you go.

Who knows, even if you prefer young wines, you might find it fascinating to experience a wine as it travels its life path, and you travel yours.

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