To Age or Not to Age? That is the Question.

 


When you think of drinking wine at the appropriate age, what picture comes to mind? Usually it is a red wine. Maybe a decanter is involved? It’s a special occasion or with friends and family. However, not all wine is designed to age a long time. I have heard so many stories of people saving a bottle of wine that they were given as a gift only to open it at some far later date to be absolutely horrified by what they smelled and tasted in the bottle. I’ll tell you a secret. Most wine is not meant to age beyond 1-2 years. However I will also tell you that you can probably figure out what type you are dealing with if you understand a bit about what makes wine appropriate to age. 
How Do Wines Age?
 
Wines age quite a lot like humans do. They go through a youthful phase, the prime of middle age, and the elegant sunset of old age. A youthful wine will still have bright fruit aromas, called primary aromas, and a core color without any browning leaving pure lemon-green in white wines and purple, sometimes blue, hues in red wines on the rim of the wine. Wines in middle age are known as having developing aromas. This is when the primary aromas start to be complemented (or not) by secondary aromas from the winemaking process such as oak spice or toast from lees as well as the beginning of bottle age aromas. The bottle age aromas are called tertiary aromas and usually show up in Cabernet as dried figs, nutty characters, or cedar characters. Each variety has its own tertiary aroma signature as it ages. Wines in middle age often start to show a browning on the rim which translates as gold in white wines or garnet in red wines. Wines coming to the end of their age cycle will be largely defined by their tertiary aromas with the rare exceptions of truly amazing wines which may still hint at the primary fruit of their youth. White wines of this level will likely be quite gold edging towards amber colored while red wines are fully garnet with tawny colored rims. This cycle’s timing depends on the wine and its key components which help the aging process. What are these key components? Tannin, acid, and sugar. 
 
Tannin
 
What is tannin? Tannin is an antioxidant compound found naturally in grapes and these compounds are transferred into the wine during the fermentation process. White wines have very little to no tannin which is why it is usually red wines that come to mind when one thinks of long term aging. Tannin naturally protects the wine from oxygen, which as a wine ages becomes more detrimental to wine quality. Wines with high levels of natural tannin are better prepared to withstand these effects of aging. Just like sunscreen protects us from the UV rays of the sun, the tannins protect the wine from oxygen thus slowing its maturation and allowing it to age more slowly. The higher the level of natural tannin, the more intense the protection which is why Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo age so well. How does this explain how Pinot Noir, a relatively low tannin variety, ages so well? Keep reading…
 
Acid
 
Like Tannin, acid is a key component of aging. A low pH coming from high acid levels contributes to the microbial stability of a wine. More importantly it also chemically slows the rate which oxidation reactions can occur which continues to decrease with an increasingly lower pH. Thus wines with low pHs age more slowly and have an increased life span than wines with higher pHs if all other components are equal. Low pHs are one of the main reasons that Rieslings and Hunter Valley Semillons age so well in addition to low tannin reds such as Pinot Noir. They are low in tannin but relatively low in pH which allows them to age more slowly.
 
Sugar
 
High levels of sugar are very helpful to aging. This comes down to osmotic pressure. What is osmotic pressure? Say you have a yeast cell. That yeast cell has a very low level of sugar inside it. Then you put it in an environment that is very high sugar. Cells naturally want to create an equilibrium between the inside and the solution that surrounds them. All the water rushes out of the cell and poof! No more yeast cell. The high level of sugar (plus pH as mentioned above) protects the wine from refermentation. A lack of microbial activity increases a wine’s ability to age further. Now when we say high sugar we are not talking about White Zin which usually runs around 26-35 grams per Liter. We are talking 80+ grams per Liter of sugar. For reference, Sodas can run a little over 100 grams per Liter. However, sugar alone will not help a wine. It needs to be sugar plus a low pH on a top quality wine. Think Botrytis affected wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji, or Trockenbeerenauslese. Icewines also benefit from this protection.  
 
Wines at least two of the above three components will have a better chance of long term aging success than wines with only one or none of the above. That being said, the wine needs to be a style which will improve or get more interesting with age. Varieties such as Muscato really benefit from being youthful when consumed so they should be enjoyed while still fresh and fruity. However, if you happen to like the characters of 10 year old Muscat then that’s great!  Drink wines when you want to enjoy them, in whatever stage of life they may be. Don’t wait for the perfect moment when that moment may be now if that is when you want to drink that special bottle.

How old is your oldest bottle of wine? Tell us in the comments.


Originally from Greer, South Carolina, Nova McCune Cadamatre moved to New York to pursue Horticulture after what began as a research paper on grapevine diseases at SUNY Morrisville turned into a love of wines and vines. Her career started in Pennsylvania where she gained experience with cool climate varietals and traditional method sparkling wine. After moving to the Finger Lakes region of New York she refined her winemaking skills, both as Winemaker’s Assistant at the Thirsty Owl Wine Company and as a Viticulture student at Cornell University. After becoming one of the first graduates of Cornell’s Viticulture and Enology program in 2006, she moved to California to assume several winemaking roles, gaining diverse experiences in both table and sparkling wines from all areas of California most recently as the red winemaker for Robert Mondavi Winery in the renowned Napa Valley. She has furthered her knowledge through London’s Wine and Spirit Education Trust with an Advanced Certificate in 2007, the Diploma gained in 2010, and is currently pursuing the Master of Wine Certification.Currently, Cadamatre lives in the Finger Lakes, NY with her family where she works as a Winemaker and continues her weekly blog at www.novacadamatre.com

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Comments

  • Excelent explanation, very helpful , systematic knowledge which will allow anyone to quickly assess whether is worth to store a particular wine

    Mar 22, 2016 at 9:36 AM


  • Snooth User: poolside1
    297664 14

    Do you think we should all make sure that our bodies are fit like a good body of age worthy wine? Lots of antioxidants and lowered ph. Like is says wine ages just like humans!

    Mar 22, 2016 at 10:20 AM


  • Snooth User: kokovair
    1903054 17

    The oldest bottle I've got in my cellar is a 1967 Tokaji Aszu 3 puttonyos. Next oldest is a '69.

    Mar 22, 2016 at 12:46 PM


  • Snooth User: Dav1956
    1696919 31

    I enjoyed reading this informative article; thank you for sharing it. As for my oldest wines, I have a Bordeaux-style blend from CA's Alexander Valley that is from 2008. I have a few Pinot Noirs from CA's Russian River Valley from 2011.

    Mar 22, 2016 at 12:55 PM


  • Snooth User: Ron Fannin
    553786 45

    Thanks for the article - very useful. I'm a relative newcomer to wine, and the oldest bottles I have are 2001 Rioja Riservas from 2001. Second are some from 2004, to include Rioja Reservas, Bugay Cabernet Reserve, and a few bottles of something you won't read much about in the wine press: a few bottles of 2004 Heinrichshaus Missouri Cynthiana (or Norton). The Riojas and the Bugay Cabernet will outlive me if I allow them to (not my intent!) but the Cynthiana is showing some bricking, although it is still plenty fresh and spicy. Cynthiana/Norton doesn't have a lot of tannin, but it has good acidity.

    Mar 22, 2016 at 1:11 PM


  • Snooth User: MJ21
    1979811 19

    Informative article. What is the range of pH in a Pinot Noir or other wine that suggests a better capacity to age?
    Another question: What is the aging potential of French Champagne, and on what basis?
    I have a 1961 Dom Perignon in my cellar that I received as a gift. I think it has been well stored. I was thinking of opening it in 2021 at a friend's birthday. What do you think?

    Mar 22, 2016 at 2:33 PM


  • Snooth User: ptharvey
    1593400 32

    Great article. Unless it is a truly exceptional wine - holding a wine for more than 6-7 years leads to either a corked wine or failure to recall why I purchased it in the first place. (Tawny Port being the exception)

    Mar 22, 2016 at 3:53 PM


  • Snooth User: MrWino101
    1501408 88

    You tasted it, you liked it, you bought it....now drink it! You never know what it will taste like in 5,10 or 20 years. And, if you live here in California wine country like me, you never know when the next earthquake will take out your entire cellar! In my "drinking" cellar the oldest bottle is a 2010 Ridge Monte Bello Cab. In my nuclear proof vault there sits a 1984 Petrus, given to me by the C of C for my work in the 1984 Olympics in L.A. It would probably pair well with some EVO about now!

    Mar 22, 2016 at 5:14 PM


  • Snooth User: Bill Davis
    943463 15

    In my cellar: 1993 Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon Artist Series; any comments or responses welcome!

    Mar 22, 2016 at 5:18 PM


  • Snooth User: Jan Day
    1369878 28

    This article helped me a lot. I am a novice wine enthusiast and the oldest bottle I have is a 2008 Shiraz. To MJ21: I sure would like to be there when you pop the cork on that '61 Dom!!!

    Mar 22, 2016 at 5:24 PM


  • Snooth User: SleazyOtto
    290020 55

    I'm curious where Zinfandel or Syrah land, in terms of suitability for aging?

    I have a 1997 Louis Martini, and a few Dunn from '98 to early 2000s, all Cabernet Sauvignon. I'm starting to build a collection of Zins, and wondering if I should be drinking them instead...

    Mar 22, 2016 at 5:26 PM


  • Snooth User: MrWino101
    1501408 88

    @ SleazyOttp...I had a meal with Joel Peterson of Ravenswood awhile back and he opened a 1994 bottle of his OVZ. We also had a bottle of 2014 at the table. I was blown away in that the 1994 was way superior to the 2014...in my opinion and also Joel's. I'm not one for holding on to wine just because some critic says "it will be great in 10 or even 20 years. The point is you never know. I was in Texas last month for TEXSOM and tasted some really nice older Cabs and even a Pinot. But, you really never can tell. I call it the Forrest Gump box of chocolates theory when it comes to popping the cork on an older wine..

    Mar 22, 2016 at 5:45 PM


  • First off, a corked wine only happens when TCA is present in the cork. Aging a wine does not make it corked! Second, the article forget to mention malolactic fermentation which drastically reduces malic acid present in the wine, and therefore reduces the potential to age the wine. Champagnes are such high acid that they should outlive everyone, so go ahead and enjoy it in 2021 (with proper storage of course). Most wines that are pre-1990's should be non-malolactic and have the potential for a very long cellar life. After the 1990's all wines started to undergo malolactic fermentation (especially in California, unfortunately) and tend to fall out in the 1-2 years the article mentions. Hope this clears up some things and helps people.

    Mar 22, 2016 at 6:04 PM


  • Snooth User: Gordoben
    1328401 141

    Great article, well put. I still have some Penfolds Grange from 84 and 86 biding their time, some 87 Magill estate that is very tired and a whole lot of early 90s Hunter and Barossa shiraz and Coonawarra Cab Sav. So much wine, so little time to drink! Fortunately I still have friends willing to help. Mike

    Mar 22, 2016 at 7:27 PM


  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 10,073

    Sleazy Otto, in support of MrWino's comment, two years ago one of the most ethereal wines I have ever tasted was a 1994 Ridge Lytton Springs--technically, a field blend but, mostly (usually, around 70%) Zinfandel. Zins from reliable makers such as Ridge and Ravenswood have proven to richly reward patience.

    I'd say that there is no harm in letting your Dunns lay for more years. On the other hand, I see no downside in your enjoying them whenever you please.

    Your 1997 Martini Cab comes from a vintage that received raves on release. However, many feel that '97s do not reward aging. I have had '97 Cabs that I thought were wonderful, and I've had some that were good, but they took up storage space for too long. I think I have been more OK with '97 Napas than '97 Sonomas. I would suggest that you plan a nice dinner and open that one up sooner rather than later.

    Mar 22, 2016 at 7:34 PM


  • Snooth User: jman8
    1902719 6

    I buy many Red wines in the $12-$30 price range. So not overly expensive. I disagree that most red wines should be consumed in the first 1-2 years. I find depending on region and winemaking methodology that almost all of my red wines improve with more age. In fact I typically like to drink most reds in the 5-7 year range. I recently had a 2001 Terra Blanca Merlot out of WA that was spectacular! I have had many inexpensive Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovenian, South African and many WA wines that all showed greater complexity beyond 5 years. I really dislike the idea that we need to drink our red wines in the first few years. I think it does a disservice to the wines. Reds with good acid, which I consider more important than tannin, will age and be better 5 plus years down the road. Encouraging people to drink their red wines in the first two years reinforces winemaking that emphasize soft forward black fruit characteristics sacrificing structure and simplifying peoples expectations of what wine should be. I think that is sad.

    Mar 22, 2016 at 8:04 PM


  • I have 1970 Chateau Cissac Bordeaux I have been saving for my oldest sons wedding. he is 46 this yr and never married!!!

    Mar 22, 2016 at 8:15 PM


  • Snooth User: rhw168
    635553 144

    @ Gordoben - 1986 Grange, Ditter's last vintage!!! It would be grand to enjoy it now. I should friend you so that the next time I visit Sydney, I could stop by and lend you a hand on solving your wine problem. :-)

    BTW - the 1987 Magill Estate might be close to its cellar life; but should still be drinking great now. Why not pop open a bottle tonight and check it out? Please let us know how the 87 Magill tastes. (salivating...)

    Mar 22, 2016 at 8:36 PM


  • Snooth User: teddz
    880703 39

    MJ21, your 1961 Dom is likely to be flat and taste more like a light dry sherry than a white wine. Champagne can age reasonably well, but 50 years is a stretch for any white wine.

    My oldest bottles: 1977 Graham's Port, 1982 Cos d'Estournel and Pavie, 1983 Chateau Rieussec which is now the color of a dark tawny port.

    In my experience, go ahead and age cabernets. especially old world, for 10, 20 years or more. Many post 1980 wines from Piedmont (nebbiolo) made in the more modern style do not really improve with age. Maybe this is less true with certain producers and certain top bottlings, but I've been very disappointed with piedmont wines from well regarded producers from the 1980s and 1990s that I thought would develop better. I try to drink pinot noir within about 7 years, as I find it will not age well unless your cellar is very cool, and the wine is not disturbed. But I haven;t done the experiment on cru Burgundy because I could never afford it.

    Rioja made in a traditional style starts life old already, and holds for quite a long time, too.

    Try to find a way to taste older wines to understand if you really like those flavors before you invest in ageworthy wines and the patience to wait. Many winelovers don't like those flavors.

    Mar 22, 2016 at 9:55 PM


  • Snooth User: louavull
    127943 7

    My oldest is a magnum of chateau Duhart-Milon 1983

    Mar 23, 2016 at 6:37 AM


  • Snooth User: teddz
    880703 39

    jman8, I fully agree with your comments on red wines in that price range, with a bias for ageing Old World reds that are classically structured, as opposed to modern fruit bombs. Have enjoyed modestly priced wines from places like the CdR "Villages," Languedoc, Tuscany, Montsant, Rioja with 7 to 10 years, drinking beautifully.

    Mar 23, 2016 at 11:22 AM


  • Snooth User: dgwinston
    1510782 6

    My oldest is a 1969 Cheval Blanc (excuse the spelling) and a 1970 Haut Brion. The Cheval's twin I drank last year and was excellent. The color was amber.The wine was very soft, almost velvety. I had a 1994 Screaming Eagle last month which was good, but should have been drunk earlier. The fruit was very subtle and the back of the mouth taste left much to be desired.

    Mar 23, 2016 at 2:28 PM


  • Snooth User: teddz
    880703 39

    dgwinston, "amber, soft and velvety" sounds like tawny port or oloroso sherry rather than first growth Bordeaux. But if it was excellent, that's all that matters!

    Mar 23, 2016 at 10:38 PM


  • Snooth User: swimdad
    474451 36

    Opened a bottle of 1982 Beringer Knight's Valley Cab. We filtered it and decanted, and it was OK. Tasted more like sherry or port than cab. Probably should have drunk it years ago.

    Mar 24, 2016 at 4:31 PM


  • Snooth User: Wineogre
    1498822 89

    Dear Gordoben,
    I had the luxury of tasting the 1984 Grange last year, and it has many years left, if cellared in good conditions. I have a bottle of the 1984, however its provenance is not great. Maybe best to drink soon.
    On the international front I have a Chapoutier 1994 Cote Rotie allegedly at the end range of its drinking window. Sounds like an excuse for a 1984/1994 Australia/France mixed tasting!

    Mar 26, 2016 at 5:16 AM


  • What bearing does "whole cluster press" having on aging recommendations?

    Mar 27, 2016 at 3:03 PM


  • I have a 1966 Lafite that I am hoping to drink this year with family born that year.

    Mar 27, 2016 at 9:40 PM


  • Snooth User: les oleski
    675774 23

    I just recently opened my last 1970 Ch. Margaux. Still was a beautiful, elegant wine with some fruit left. I purchased a case in 1976, and have enjoyed it over the years. My oldest is a 1957 Ch. Haut-Brion. Cant find much info on it. Maybe some one can enlighten me.

    Mar 28, 2016 at 3:14 PM


  • Excellent Seminar, very interested.

    well done

    Mar 29, 2016 at 11:02 AM


  • Snooth User: John Koenig
    1982304 15

    Lovely article. Thank you for the well-researched treatment of a challenging topic. My wines are aged not for investment, but because I buy wine faster than I drink wine.

    Cheers!

    Apr 10, 2016 at 8:22 PM


  • Snooth User: Ron Fannin
    553786 45

    Me too! I wonder if I'll live to drink them all!

    Apr 10, 2016 at 9:46 PM


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