I recently received a question from a woman named Maggie regarding how to figure out when and for how long a wine can be aged. This was her actual question:
“Can you tell me, how do I know how long I can keep a wine? How do you know that a wine will be good 5, 10 or 15 years from now? I have friends that will visit wineries and buy a 1/2 case or more of a wine they like. Then they opened a bottle that is only 3 or 4 years old and they complain that it’s not as good as when they first bought it.”
Since there is no simple answer to this, I thought I would write a post to try to shed some light on the subject.
To begin with, probably not more than 2% of the wine in the world would get better with, say, 10 or more years of age. But these are the wines that get all the hype and have people believing that all wine will get better with age. This is simply not true. There are various factors that contribute to a wine’s age-ability. The most common of these would be the presence of tannin, mostly found in intense dry red wines. Tannin is part of the make-up of a wine that gives it the mouthfeel and, in some cases, astringency that needs to soften with age. You may already be familiar with tannin from a strong cup of tea. That dryness left on the tongue after swallowing the tea is actually tannin as tea has a great deal of this component.
Another factor of age-ability is acid level. Acid is its own preservative, and will keep a wine longer than a low acid wine will keep. Likewise, sugar is a type of preservative and so the intensely sweet, classic French sauternes (not the stuff labeled sauterne from the USA) and the ice wines from around the world, can age for many years and end up being luscious. This only applies to sweet wines that are sweet because of the initial sugar in the grapes and not wines that are sweetened with other methods to finish them off…such as adding sugar or corn syrup.
Most wines are considered “ready to drink” when they are released for sale. Light, fruity white or rose’ wines are better consumed young, as that freshness is a characteristic of those types of wines. This is also true of young, light bodied red wine. All of these types of wines tend to lose their character with age.
Generally, the more intense, barrel fermented chardonnays, dry red wines, and, as I mentioned, the sweet wines from certain regions of the world, will age well. In addition, I have tasted some awesome German Rieslings that were many years old.
Having said that, I have never believed that anyone, no matter who they are in the wine world, can positively tell you how long a wine will age, even though they would like you to believe they can.
So in reference to the comment regarding Maggie’s friends, there are a couple things wrong with the way they are going about buying wine for aging. Truthfully, the fact that you really like a wine when you buy it doesn’t mean you will like it better in a year. The fact is, the wine will change in some way. In the world of wine, some experts will tell you that it has become better, this may be true to them, but you may not agree if you were crazy about this wine when you bought it. Also, so much depends on the type of wine. Other things must be considered before buying some of it to age. If you are in a winery, somebody there should be able to tell you if that wine has the potential to get better. If you are at a place where people are honest, they will tell you that certain of their wines are better if consumed within a year, maybe two, while they hope that others have the potential to age well.
Once again, this is no guarantee, and never can be. If I am approached in my winery about the wines I make, I am honest about these things. If the consumer decides they would like to purchase some wine that has the potential for getting better with age and wants to buy a case, I steer them towards the appropriate varieties, i.e. dry reds, chardonnay, etc., that I believe will do so. But I tell everyone who asks me this question the rule I follow when I buy wine…and I buy a fair amount of it.
Buy six bottles or a case and lay it down. In six months (I would never wait 2 or 3 years), try one. If it tastes good, try another in 6 months, and so on. When you get to the point where you have some inkling that it may be going the other direction (and you should, by keeping on top of it like this) but it is still good, start drinking it. If you have a lot of it, it’s time to have a party!