A year in a French vineyard: April 2019
Keep or quaff... why do we age wine? Jonathan Hesford considers the tricky task of buying wines to lay down or drink
One of the things anyone will tell you about wine is that it gets better with age.
However, most wine drinkers do not know why, what or how long they should age wine. This can lead to many disappointments. Nobody wants to pour an expensive wine that they have been waiting years to savour down the sink. On the other hand, lots of ageworthy wines are drunk far too young.
The famous wine regions of France gained their reputation by making wines that would improve for years, even decades. A perfectly aged bottle of fine wine displays beautiful aromas and flavours that reward only those with the foresight and patience to know what to buy and how long to wait before opening.
Hugh Johnson, in his World Atlas of Wine also eludes to the magic of being able to link back to past generations of vignerons. There is definitely something very special about sharing a carefully stored bottle.
Unfortunately only a lucky few have actually had that special experience. Too often people lay down wines that were never intended to improve, open an expensive bottle as soon as they buy it or keep a special wine waiting for the right occasion to open it. In order to improve with age, a red wine needs to have the right amount and type of tannins and, to a lesser extent, acidity.
Tannin is extracted from the skins of the grapes during fermentation and is also enhanced by storage in oak barrels. Certain grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah produce tannins that age very well for decades. Others, such as Pinot noir and Grenache, develop and change more quickly.
Tannins are chemicals that act as a preservative in the wine. They absorb oxygen, preventing the wine from oxidising. At the same time they evolve from being odourless and astringent to becoming perfumed and silky. These young, mouth-drying tannins can seem very off-putting to people unaccustomed to tasting wines made for ageing.
Acidity also helps to preserve wine and decreases over time, making the wine less sharp and more balanced.
As wine has become more popular among the increasing middle classes of the developed world, wineries have sprung up across the globe making wines that suit their palates and pockets.
Last month, I wrote about the huge numbers of bottles made, often by giant New World drinks companies, that fill the supermarket shelves of Anglo-Saxon countries.
Even in France there has been a move away from traditional styles of wines to those that provide more instant gratification.
These wines are made using new techniques that increase fruitiness and smoothness but often by removing the tannins and more complex flavour compounds that would make the wine improve with age or by using over-ripe grapes that do not have the type of tannin or acidity required to preserve the wine.
So the vast majority of bottles sold today have a shelf-life of a couple of years. These wines were never designed to age and will only deteriorate if cellared. It used to be the case that the most expensive wines to buy were the ones most designed to age and that all the great wines of the world were sold years before they were ready to drink.
In recent times, a new type of affluent customer has emerged, often from cultures or backgrounds where wine was unknown. They want wines which can be enjoyed within months of purchase and are both impressive and easy to drink. A super-charged version of the kind of wines the supermarkets sell.
Therefore price is no longer an indication of age-worthiness. A rich, hedonistic, concentrated wine with oaky aromas and a smooth mouthfeel can cost more than a wine which requires 10 years to show its superiority.
In order to experience the pleasure of a perfectly aged fine wine, unless we are willing to buy at auctions or pay the crazy prices a restaurant may charge, we need to choose wines that are made traditionally from grapes with the potential for ageing.
Fortunately this does not always mean spending a fortune. There are many perfectly respectable “petits chateaux” in Bordeaux that do not have the prestige of the premier crus of Pauillac but are still making wines that will reward those who keep them for five to 15 years.
There are less famous regions selling age-worthy wines at a fraction of the cost of the top wines of Burgundy, Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Chinon, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Saint-Joseph, Languedoc and Roussillon, Cahors and Madiran, to name just a few, all have producers who are keeping to the tradition that wines should improve with age. The problem is identifying them and that is where knowing about producers instead of just regions is important.
Wine books and magazines, websites and merchants all try to provide this information but the most enjoyable way of learning is through experience. So next time you get the opportunity to taste before buying, do not just choose the smoothest, easiest wine to drink now. Think about how tough tannins and mouth-watering acidity might help the wine evolve into something beautiful. Have faith in reputable wine producers and merchants and do not just buy one bottle. Buy six and open them over a number of years.
Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology and is the winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon – www.domainetreloar.com. If you have questions on this column, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org