We all know from cleaning out the fridge after a vacation that wine’s ability to improve with age sets it apart from other consumable goods. But not all wine gets better with time. More than 90 percent of the wine produced is consumed within a year of bottling, and drinking many wines beyond a year or two often compromises the fruity flush of their youths.
So how do you know when to drink what? For that minority of age-worthy wines, ordinary chemistry dictates how long they should remain in your cellar before gracing the table. Over time, in the presence of a minute amount of oxygen (some enters during bottling and more continues to enter through the slightly porous cork), red wine’s tannins (the bitter tasting compounds found in the grapes’ seeds, skins, and stems) change from short-chain polymers to longer, thicker ones that come off less intense to the receptors in our mouth responsible for detecting tannin. In simpler terms, tannins mellow out with age. Pigmented compounds, called anthocyanins, also form thicker strands and, together with the tannins, become so heavy that they precipitate as sediment—the reason older red wines often need decanting.
As the tannins and anthocyanins ease up, the primary fruit aromas also recede, giving rise to more secondary and tertiary (non-fruit) aromas. For science geeks, this occurs from the oxidation of wine’s aldehydes (part alcohol and part organic acid) into esters, or the wine’s bouquet. Common examples of secondary and tertiary aromas that develop in aging wines include damp forest floor in Pinot Noir and saddle leather in Cabernet Sauvignon.
The ringmaster keeping everything in line is acidity. Wine meant for aging needs a lively streak of it—so much so that drinking it young would make your face twitch and contort. Without acidity, old wine tastes old and dusty. With it, even a 30-year-old bottle tastes fresh as a daisy.
Sweetness helps a wine stand the test of time too (just as it does in jam and other preserved fruits). Wines like Sauternes and late-harvest (see Winespeak 101) Riesling, for instance, have staying power, and when alcohol is added on top of sweetness (as in Port and Madeira), you’ve got a 50-plus-year shelf-life.
So which wines should you tuck away for a rainy day a decade from now? Wines containing a lot of fruit, acid, and tannin will age better than those with low or moderate amounts. Generally, these are more expensive wines ($30 and up) and are likely to include vintage-dated Champagne, Riesling, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, high-end White Burgundy (Chardonnay), reds from Bordeaux (blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc), Burgundy (pinot noir), Nebbiolo-based wines (Barolo, Barbaresco, etc.), Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, and syrah-based Rhône Valley wines like Hermitage. This is by no means an exhaustive list (there are a host of Spanish, Italian, and even Virginian wines that could all benefit from some extra aging), but it’s a quick guideline. Aging cheap wine, on the other hand, isn’t going to make it taste any better or more expensive. If an $8 bottle is undrinkably tannic and musty now, it’s not going to lose the tannins and acquire some fruit from sitting in your sock drawer for five years.
Perhaps more important than when to pop the cork is how you store your treasures in waiting. House your wine the way you might an adolescent—in a cool basement or underground lair, still, and on its side. Consistent temperatures matter more than cool temperatures, so just avoid any seasonal fluctuations of 25 degrees or more. And, just like you might with your teenager, give your cellared wine some time to air out once you open it. It’s not fair to expect that it’ll smell like roses the minute it awakens from a 10-year hibernation.
Serious collectors may buy a case of a particular wine and open one bottle every six months to a year to taste how it is developing and to avoid drinking it past its peak. There are plenty of apps out there for those needing to manage their cellars. There are even career cellar managers. It all seems a bit precious for those of us who consider aging wine the time it takes to get it home and into our glass, but catching a wine in that transcendent moment when its fruit, acid, and tannin are in perfect, harmonious balance is something worth attaining. Besides, who ever said aging is easy?