Up until now we have discussed the various stages of the winemaking process. We’ve looked at the natural life cycle of the vine and the most obvious form of human intervention, the grape harvest. We’ve explored the art of maturation, during which the wine gets the finishing touches before bottling. We’ve made it a point to distinguish between maturation (in oak barrels, stainless steel tanks and a variety of other vessels) and ageing (in the bottle). In the 5th edition of Millesima Tips we take a closer look at ageing, what happens to a wine once it is bottled and how to decide how long to keep it.
Why to Age Certain Wines…
You have probably already heard a wine being described as “having good ageing/cellaring potential.” This means that certain characteristics of a tasted wine (grape varietal, vintage, origin, chemical composition) forecast that it will improve with the time during which it is stored in the bottle. Popular varietals for ageing include Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. Bordeaux Blends are also known for ageing well, as are Pinot Noir wines from cool climates, like Burgundy. Wines with more tannins and higher acidity tend to age better, since an abundance of these gives the ageing process “more to work with.” This also means that wines destined for ageing are often a bit too bitter, dry and acidic to fully enjoy in their youth.
While maturation adds the finishing touches to a wine, ageing a bottle allows the finished product to develop over time. Complex chemical transformations involving tannins and acidity result in a smoothing out of the mouthfeel and the development of complex flavours and aromas. Oxygen acts as a catalyst for these chemical reactions, which explains why exposure to a limited amount of oxygen helps the ageing process along. Traditional corks are naturally porous to allow the wine to “breathe.”
…and Why not to Age Others
We’ve all heard the similes. “Like a bottle of wine, … improves with age.” Yet not all wines are meant to be aged. In fact, a large majority of red wines produced around the world are meant to be opened within 5 years of the date of purchase (2-3 for whites and roses), simply because there is not much to be gained by storing them (they do not improve in quality). There is, however, much to lose. If the wine does not contain the necessary level of tannins and acid, or if the wine is stored incorrectly, ageing can increase the risk of wine faults, most commonly oxidation. So why take the gamble when there is more to lose than to gain? Some winemakers – most notably in New Zealand and Australia – prefer to seal their bottles with metallic screw caps instead of the traditional cork in order to reduce the wine’s exposure to oxygen and “lock in” the fruity flavours even more. Nevertheless, certain screw caps are not 100% airtight and these can – as an alternative to cork – be used for wines meant for ageing.
To figure out whether and for how long a wine should be aged, it helps to find a professional tasting note or to consult with the shopkeeper.
If Age, Store Correctly
Once it has been determined that a wine should be kept over 5 years after purchase, it is key to store it in the right conditions. Below are some tips for how to keep a wine in conditions optimal for ageing:
- Store on its side. Letting a wine stand vertically means the cork is not touching the wine. This dries out the cork, which shrivels and lets too much oxygen in and evaporated water out. This results in an oxidized mess.
- Store in a dark place. The UV rays of sunlight can degrade the wine even through the “tinted” bottle and cause premature ageing.
- Store at a temperature between 7 and 18° C. Temperatures over 20° C will cause the wine to age faster than wanted, resulting in flat flavours. Temperatures under 7° C can dry out the cork, leading to oxidation. Finally, if the wine freezes, it can expand and push out the cork.
- Store at a humidity between 50-70%. A very dry environment can cause the cork to wither while too much humidity will spread mould over the label.
Ready to start ageing your collection of wines? Stay tuned for more information on storage options!