Everyone knows a phrase about wines improving with age. You see them on T-shirts and tea towels, posters and coasters.
Things like “Just like wine, I get better with age” or “Wine improves with age, I improve with wine”.
But how many people actually age their bottles of wine or buy aged wine in shops and restaurants?
I suspect it is very few.
Not all wines age well
A lot of the modern advances in wine technology have been focused on making wines that can be drunk soon after harvest.
The number of people who have actually tasted an aged wine is getting smaller every year and the current fashion for natural wines is all about drinking fresh wines that are only six to 24 months old.
However, if you want to be a part of the small but exclusive club of aged-wine connoisseurs, there are a few things to note.
The first is to realise that not all wines are made to age gracefully.
In today’s world of instant gratification, many wines, even quite expensive ones, are made to be enjoyed within a couple of years of bottling and are not designed to actually improve with age.
Acidity, sugar, alcohol and tannin are important
In order to improve with age, wines need to have certain preserving attributes.
These are acidity, sugar, alcohol and tannin.
Not all four are required but a wine that lacks them will “fall over” with time. The wine also has to have sufficient concentration of flavours so that it doesn’t just fade away.
A high natural level of sugar is the key preservative in the sweet wines of Sauternes, Montbazillac, the Loire and Jurançon.
The fortified wines of Banyuls, Rivesaltes and Maury have both high alcohol and sugar to give them the ability to last decades.
Acidity is important mainly in white wines, including sparkling ones.
Good French examples come from Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Well-made white wines can age for 5-15 years, softening the acidity and developing intriguing characters such as honey, wax, wool and nuts as the organic acids transform.
The main grape varieties used for making age-worthy white wines are Riesling, Chardonnay, Semillon and Chenin Blanc.
Finally, tannin is the most important, interesting and frustrating ageing component of red wines.
Tannins form a sediment over time
Tannin is a preserving agent which alters over time. It comes mainly from the skins of red grapes.
A tannic wine can be almost undrinkable when young because the tannins make the wine taste bitter and feel astringent, giving you that drying feeling in your mouth.
However, over time the tannin molecules actually change. The astringency disappears and the texture mellows, to make the wine feel silky instead of coarse.
Tannins also form a sediment over time. This sediment has nothing to do with whether the wine was filtered. It’s a natural chemical process and an indication of a wine that was made to age well.
Cooler climate wines age well
Tannins also release volatile phenols into the wine as they age. These molecules create the bouquet of the wine, having aromas of dried flowers, sandalwood, furniture polish or eastern spices.
For me, this is the most rewarding aspect of ageing wine.
The most popular black grape varieties for achieving this are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir but other grapes can produce rewarding aged red wines, such as Mourvèdre and Malbec.
In general, the best wines for ageing come from the cooler, classic regions of France, where the grapes don’t over-ripen and are made in a traditional manner with the intention of creating a wine for ageing.
For red wines, this means extracting plenty of tannin from the skins during fermentation.
They will often need to be macerated on the skins for at least three weeks.
Oxygen is also important for creating the kind of tannins that improve over time. Therefore winemakers will perform various tasks to get oxygen into the wine during fermentation.
When to drink a wine
Another important step in creating a wine for the long term is storing it in oak barrels.
Because the barrels are porous, they permit a small amount of oxygen to permeate slowly into the wine.
In addition, tannins and other compounds from the oak help to transform the grape tannins into ones which both give the wine body and future smoothness.
Often, wines which rely on acidity and/or tannin to age will appear unappealing when they are young.
Perhaps a major cause of the misconception among some that expensive wines are not really that good.
It’s quite difficult to predict exactly when a particular wine will be at its peak.
It’s a combination of vintage, grape variety, winemaking choices and cellar conditions.
Some producers will provide information on their websites and wine magazines provide up-to-date drinking guides for the vintages of classic regions.
How to store wine for ageing
The ideal conditions for ageing bottled wine are a dark room with a constant temperature of around 15 degrees.
However, so long as the temperature doesn’t change much on a daily basis, a warmer room will not ruin wine. A spare bedroom, garage or broom cupboard will all work.
For those with no cool storage space, invest in a wine fridge.
Wines with natural corks need to be laid down to keep the cork damp and prevent leakage but screwcapped wine can be stored vertically.
How to start your wine collection
If you want to collect some wines for ageing, start gradually. Choose wines carefully. Take advice on producers and vintages. Buy several bottles of the same wine so you can chart its progress. Tag or organise wines with the year you plan to drink them. Don’t focus too much on one region or vintage.
Make sure you have plenty of other wines on hand for casual drinking so that you won’t be tempted to dip into the cellar.
Finally, do not keep a wine for a special occasion like an anniversary, birth or wedding. Open the bottles based on the wine’s timescales, not yours.