Wine aging, what, why and how, is probably the most mysterious and confusing thing about this whole subject of wine. It’s important to start by saying that it’s almost impossible to generalize because the wine itself is somewhat unpredictable and optimum drink-ability is subjective.
Most Wines are Best When They’re Young
Contrary to popular belief, most wines aren’t made for aging, they’re made for drinking. This should be good news, because most of us don’t want to store wine in the first place. We Americans are notorious for aging our wines in the back seat of the car on the way home, and in many cases, that’s the best way to approach it.
Most wines are fresh and simple in style, and are at their best when they’re young. Here in the Napa Valley and in some other highly regarded winegrowing regions of the world, there are wines made with very good aging potential. Most of the time, these are red wines, but there are numerous exceptions.
The best advice for anyone is to ask questions when you’re buying wine. Don’t be shy! When you have questions, it can be worth a few dollars extra to buy your wine at a wine specialty shop, where the staff is knowledgeable.
Again, optimal age is subjective. You can generally assume that if the wine is for sale, you can enjoy it now and the bottle aging is optional. Most wineries won’t release a wine that’s so young it’s undrinkable, or not if they want to stay in business! Beyond that, bottle aging is purely a case of personal preference.
In a subject with so few absolutes, there’s at least one: aging always reduces fruitiness. If the fruit is the thing you enjoy most about the wine, drink it when it’s young.
Whites and Rosé Wines
The vast majority of whites and rosé wines are meant for early drinking, which means you should drink them within 2-3 years of the vintage date. The vintage date is the harvest date, and is the best way to determine the wine’s true age. If the only thing the wine has going for it is fruitiness, the younger the better. Time will only make the fruit less vibrant.
Some of the more full bodied whites are perceived to improve with a little age. Quite often these are Chardonnay wines, but, as you know, not all Chardonnays are created equal. Again, if you prefer fruitiness, drink it young. As it gets older, the fruity, apple-like character lessens, but in a quality Chardonnay, the trade-off can be a toasty, nutty, caramelized or mineral character that can be very appealing.
One way to tell if the Chardonnay is a good candidate for bottle age is to notice the acidity. If the wine is relatively high in acid, it will have a tart, fresh finish and make your mouth water. You’ll notice it along the sides of your tongue. Acid is a very good natural preservative, and a relatively high acid is an indicator that you can lay the wine down for a few years. Cool climate wines tend to be higher in acid than warm climate wines, which means that if the Chardonnay comes from the coolest growing regions it’s likely to be quite tart when it’s young, and the tartness will round out with age.
A Chardonnay grown here in the sunny, Napa Valley will usually have a softer acid from the beginning, and is often more approachable and better for drinking when it’s relatively young. Our signature style here at Goosecross is to make a Chardonnay that’s fresh in style with a crisp acidity. It’s lovely upon release, and it can be very nice at 5 years old too. You’d have to try it both ways to see what your preference is. Sounds like a fun experiment!
Champagne and Sparkling Wine
This is a very tricky area. The conventional wisdom is that all of the aging is done at the winery and that the wine shouldn’t be bottle-aged at home. As with all things in wine, it depends! Vintage-dated and prestige cuvees from the Champagne region can often live for quite a long time after release, and if you like greater richness and a softer acidity and mousse, bottle aging these wines for a few years is for you. If the label says RD (for recently disgorged), it means that the wine spent a number of years aging on the yeast lees in the bottle at the winery. It will be quite rich and toasty and further bottle aging will accentuate the richness. Non-vintage Champagne is a blend of old and new wine and is generally meant for drinking upon release. Many new world sparkling wines are fruit-driven and meant for early drinking, but as with great Champagnes, the prestige cuvees that were long aged on the yeast are candidates for further bottle aging. It’s smart to ask questions when you buy.
Dessert wines cloud the issue further. Sauternes styles and other late harvest wines such as German Auslese or Vouvray Moulleux can evolve beautifully over a very long period of time. So can good ice-wines (eiswein) and well-made fortified wines, such as Port or Madeira. The fortification is alcohol, and the higher alcohol serves as a preservative.
So, in a nutshell, while most whites should be consumed when they’re young, full bodied whites and dessert whites are possible exceptions.
We often hear that whites don’t age well and reds do. That works some of the time, but not all of the time. You can assume that moderately priced reds are not made for aging. The producer doesn’t expect that you’ll clutter up your cellar with ordinary wine, so he crafts it for early drinking. Drink value-priced reds within 3-4 years of the vintage date. For fine reds, there’s a lot of variability, but fortunately, the wine will give you clues.
If you taste a young red wine that’s slightly astringent and has a drying effect on your palate, then you know there’s some tannin in it. Winemakers value tannin because it’s an anti-oxidant that helps the wine to age gracefully. If the wine is tasty and somewhat “tannic,” then you can probably lay it down for a few years and it will soften up. If you taste both high acid and high tannin, then you have a wine with very definite potential for aging, providing you like its other characteristics.
Will you like it better when it’s older? Maybe. Here in America, we drink a lot of young red wine, and we’ve developed at taste for it. If you like big, powerful, fruity Cabernets, then a ten-year-old Cab might disappoint you because it will be less fruity and powerful than it was in its youth. The trade-off is complexity and subtlety – often good, older reds defy description, but they’re treasured for their soft, subtle richness. The fruitiness will still be there, but it won’t necessarily be the dominant force anymore. Much of it gives way to aromas that remind you of leather, truffles or sometimes dried fruit. The wine often seems earthier with age and the tannins soften up. We tend to prefer the things we’re accustomed to, so let that be your guide.
How long to age? Good question! It depends on the producer and style. Never feel foolish or intimidated about asking questions when you’re buying wine. There’s no way for any of us, no matter how sophisticated, to predict a wine’s ageability without tasting it or learning something about it from a reliable source. Again, this is a very subjective area, and there’s lots of room for error. If you have several bottles of the same wine, then you have the advantage of being able to open one every so often to gage its progress. It helps if the producer has a well-established track record. You can look at how previous vintages have evolved.
Of course, none of these wines will age well if they aren’t stored properly. Reds, whites and bubblies all need the same thing. Keep them in a cool, dark place, avoiding temperature fluctuation and vibration. Some humidity, around 60-70% is less important, but very desirable, if you can do it. Cork finished bottles should be kept sideways (hence, the name of the movie!) so the cork is swollen with wine and the seal is tight. For bottles with plastic corks and screw caps, the temperature matters but the bottle position doesn’t.
So often we see wine being stored in the kitchen. Unless you have a wine fridge, the kitchen is second only to the garage for fluctuation! It’s one of the worst possible choices.
Tough assignment, finding a good place? Be creative! Look around your house. Ideal temperature is between 55 and 60, but you’ll be okay if the temperature gets as warm as 70, as long as there’s not much fluctuation. If you’ve got a basement, you’re way ahead of most of us. If you don’t, try putting your wine in the crawl space under your house. Or find a closet that doesn’t touch any exterior walls. Buy a used fridge and put it on the warmest setting. Remember that the less ideal your storage conditions, the less you should expect in terms of longevity.
Once you’ve been bitten by the collecting bug, you may find yourself investing in a temperature and humidity controlled storage locker. They come in all sizes and work beautifully. But beware – wine is for enjoying, not for storing. Don’t put the wine on a pedestal to the point that there’s no occasion good enough for it. The best wine is the one you enjoy with family, friends and great food!