“Wine improves with age” – myth or reality?

Let’s talk about the wine age and how it correlates with wine quality. Do we need to pay attention to the year on the label? In which case is a wine worth being stored, and when is better to drink it immediately as soon as practical? We are talking here about the ageing of wine that is already bottled and is not any more the object of any winemaking manipulation.

Like many other things in our mostly not black-and-white world, the thesis in the title of this article is neither lie nor true. Even, if we modify it as “A good wine only improves with age”, it also wouldn’t be a lie, nor true.

Yes, there are some wines that evolve and improve over decades. Some rare examples can do it during a century. Also, there are some wines, in which case the cork better never touch the bottleneck, because their taste qualities start to decrease as soon as they have been bottled. All other wines freely fill the time frame between these two extremes.

What is, actually, the ageing of bottled wine?

Wine, besides water and alcohol, consists of sugars, acids, tannins, pigments and different aromatic compounds. All of them slowly interact with each other, aborting the existence of some molecules, and starting the life of other ones. Air under the cork, and also the air that slowly passes through the cork, if it is not a hermetic screw cup (about bottle closers read here), slowly oxidize all these organic compounds, which also change the wine taste. Tannins become softer, and the intensity of fruity aromas decreases, but new, more complicated earth aromas appear (it is the term for any non-fruity and non-floral aromas). The taste of wine becomes more complex and interesting.

The exact chemistry of the ageing process is unknown. Of course, it is clear, that oxidation does with every specific molecule, but the total complex result depends on many different factors, which are also variable, and nobody wants to deep into this mystery.

Unswerving on the predictable question, I tell ahead, that quick oxidation with a huge amount of oxygen gives another result than slow oxidation with a small amount, so it is impossible to age wine just by saturating it with oxygen. Well, actually it is possible, of course, but the result would be dramatically different, and also unpleasant.

Again, the maturation peak is not the end of the wine’s life. Like any living creature, after the blooming wine starts to fade away. The wine life in the bottle is not simple and straight-lined, but curve-described. Immediately after the bottling, the wine taste is not optimal. Wine is a gentle substance, and all these commotions with moving from one packing to another disturb its balance. Usually, wine doesn’t sell immediately after bottling; it needs some time to recover. At least month, better several depends on the wine. As a result, after bottling, the taste quality of any wine increases until it comes to its peak. As more wine is appropriate for ageing, then longer and smother this way to the peak. However, there is a nuance, which is worth to know. Some high-quality, long-ageing wines (Bordeaux, for example) have the downfall of the taste somewhere in the middle of the way to the peak. Thus, young wine has rough tannins, an intense fruity taste, and a strong aroma. Robust, but with expressed taste. On the peak, it would have soft tannins and a complex and sophisticated aroma. And in the middle, can be a breakdown for one year or more, when wine almost lost aroma, and the intensity of the taste significantly decreases. You wouldn’t want to drink it at this time. However, it is not the senility of wine; it is time for the rebuilding of wine components, it is normal. You just need to wait. There is a plateau after the peak when wine keeps its best taste for some time. Again, this time is also different for different wines. And after the plateau, there is a slow, but final decrease in taste quality. A wine that is not yet reached its best taste is young; wine on the top of its taste – peak wine; wine that has started to lose its taste – an old one. Again, all these transitions are happens not by jump, but smoothly. Then more time is needed for wine ageing, then smoother transitions.

The figure shows approximate curves of some wine development.

Some wines technologically are made in such a way, that all ageing happens before the bottle would be the finally corked; and on the market, they come completely ready for consumption. There is no sense to keep them in the hope to improve their taste. Moreover, the wine may start to spoil. Such wines are sparkling ones, and also fortified, such as Sherry, Madeira, Porto, and so on. Most of them require maturation and some very long ones, but it happens before the final bottling. Of course, as usual, each rule has exceptions. Some vintage and elite champagne can be kept up to 20-30 years. And some vintage Ports wouldn’t reach their peaks even after 20 years.

Nowadays, most part of non-expensive wines is made ready for consumption. One-two years and the taste quality starts to decrease. First of all, it applies to white wine and rose, and also to the light low-tannic red wines, such as Gamay, Lambrusco, Portugieser, Tarrango and simple Pinot Noir.
By the way, the perfect example of a wine, that better be drunk right from the barrel, and cannot survive even a year is Beaujolais Nouveau (grape variety – Gamay). It reaches its peak after three months after the end of fermentation. Detailed about Beaujolais Nouveau you can be read here.
Roses in total are made to be drunken young. Their beauty and strength are in the freshness and brightness of fruity aroma. Their peak fells in the first year. So, with very rare exceptions, any rose is better to consume in the first two years.

With wines of higher quality, everything is not so simple. On average, the higher the quality of wine, the more different components it has, and the longer these components interact with each other and oxygen, the more complex result would be. Usually, ageing is good for them, and on the market, they come before the peak. However, the time to the peak is dramatically different between different wines. The simplified rule said, that bigger tannins (for red) and higher acidity (for white) require a longer time for ageing. That means, that grape variety and growing place determine the possibility and necessity of ageing.

More or less a working rule, the higher quality of wine the more ageing gives to it.
However, even the best wines are made from some grape varieties better at a young age.
Good example – wines from grape Viogniers (for example, North Rhone Condrieu). These wines have low acidity and intensive but light flower-fruity aroma. With age, the aroma disappeared and the wine becomes dull. Except for old vines or late-harvest wines, which can survive some ageing, even the best Viogniers should be consumed in the first year.

The same is applied to New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, its best year – first. It has the same basic taste characteristic as Viogniers, with the same consequences. The same with all New World Sauvignon blanc. However, Sauvignon blanc from its French motherland, Loira Valley (Sancerre and Pouille-Fume) has high acidity and can improve after a couple of years in the bottle.

What about red wines?

In general, wines based on Pinot noir, Grenache, Savongise, Zinfandel, Cabernet frac, Pinotage, and Merlot requires less time for ageing. Their peak comes in 5-7 years.

Wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah и Nebiollo require much more time. Thus, high-quality Bordeaux (Pomerol, Sent-Emiloin etc), Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti Classico Reserve, and Rioha need at least 10 years (sometimes even 15-10) to reach the peak.

Talking about regions, the Old World wines require more time for ageing than New World ones. It is applied to both red and white wines.

Many times I met the belief that ageing is good only for red wines, and not good for white. It is not true. Ageing helps to open white wines, same as red. And again, a lot depends on variety and place.

High-quality German Rieslings reach their peak in 5-20 years. Alsace Rieslings come on a peak in 3-12 years. However, don’t try to age American ones; the hot New World climate kills high acidity, which Rieslings need for ageing, and as result, we have dull, boring wine.

Hungary Tokay and French Sauterne also need 5-20 years of age.

White Burgundy, white dry Bordeaux, Chablis (but not most New World chardonnay), and Loire’s Chenin blanc also need time for ageing.

All this info brings us to the most important wine-lover question: When this exact wine will come to its peak? Which year should I look on the market? When taking the bottle from the cellar?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to this question. Of course, some suggestions can be made, but the exact year couldn’t be named even by the winemaker, who made the wine.

Let’s take Bordeaux. Some top Pomerol. According to basic knowledge, this wine needs 10-20 years to reach its peak. Time varies between different chateaus. Even inside one chateau it strongly depends on the vintage. What was the weather like this year? For example, for Bordeaux, 2005 and 2010 were very good years, so, the wines of this year require more time to come to a peak, their taste is better, and at the peak, they will be longer.

On average, a red wine from the dry year harvest requires a longer time to age, because the grape has thicker skin than the grape of the wet year, and, accordingly, is more tannic.

White wine of the cool year requires longer ageing than the wine of the warm year because it has high acidity.

Even one party of wine (made in one barrel) can have a different future. Different places of destination, different storage conditions, and different shipment conditions – all of these can have an influence.

Or, for example, a bottle. There is a standard bottle, 0.75 l; there is a half-bottle; there is a magnum (1.5 l). Maturation is oxidation in a first raw. The volume of the bottles is different, but the amount of available oxygen is the same (the bottle’s neck is similar to any bottle). So, half-bottle wine comes to the peak quicker than in the standard bottle, and in magnum slower than in the standard one.

Important! The shorter time to the peak doesn’t mean that wine reaches the same quality for a shorter time. Not all. This means that wine reaches its maximum and starts to move down quicker. The longer the wine is aged to the peak (I am about the same type of wine) than richer and completer would be the taste. Long ageing is a plus.

Thus, a good vintage and a big bottle are pluses.

Actually, the level of wine matureness is checked by constant tasting. Once a year (or in a two, or three, depending on the proposed time of ageing) one bottle from the party is opened and tasted.
Be aware, that any bottle can be suddenly spoiled. TCA can happen (about cork and this disaster read here), or cork just can dry out and crack, or wine can be overheated during transportation, or shacked too hard (during transportation again) – a lot of different things can influent wine’s gentle nature. When such a thing happens with well-aged wine that is close to its peak, it is especially a shame.

It is easy to realize, that the closer high-quality wine is to its peak, the high its price. The longer merchant (or the person who bought the wine from a merchant and keeps it in the cellar) keeps the wine, the expenses are higher. The expenses include using the cellar (the number of shelves in the cellar is limited, and every year brings new wines) and risks (than longer you keep the wine when the higher risk that it can be spoiled, and every year you spend many to store it). As a result, for consumers, price increases with every additional year in the cellar.

There is a nuance, that useful to know. When wine comes to its peak (close to the top, open its entire aroma completely, and still slowly improving), its price reaches the maximum (for this wine). As soon as wine passed its peak, the price drops down. The wine is still good (the fall process is very slow at the beginning), but the wine must be sold quickly until it is still good. And price drop down, although not dramatically, of course, but still.

Also, you can make your own wine collection and bring them to the peak yourself.

Collection or not, many of us keep wine for a long enough time. How to keep wine correctly?

Wine love lay down in a dark, cool, slightly wet place. Like a toad in the hibernation.

Long exposure to bright light is not good for wine (light catalyzes some biochemical processes), especially since it is a bed for sparkling wines.

The ideal temperature for wine storage is 10-13C (50-55F), but 7-18C (44-65F) also works.

The ideal place is a deep stone cellar under the house. How many of us are the lucky owner of such a place? I would be glad to have some, but no chance.

Another good variant – is a temperature-controlled place. Wine fridge, for example. Of room with conditioner. They are expensive and consume electricity. You may rent a place in a temperature-controlled storage space. There is storage, specialized in the storage of customers’ wine.
Or choose the coolest room at home.

The worst thing for wine is temperature drops, so it is better to have the temperature a little high than optimal, but constant. Thus, the shed, balcony storage, kitchen, or other places where the temperature constantly changes –are the worse variants.

Temperature above 35C (95F) is dramatic for wine. So, if your home somehow transformed into a sauna (for example, you live in Texas, and your conditioner has been broken), save your wine as soon as possible. Drink it, or put it in the refrigerator. 4C (39F) is not ideal, but much better than 35C (95F).

The high temperature, the quicker the oxidation and, accordingly, the wine maturation. Than mean a decrease in quality, but also that means that wine quicker reaches its peak and starts to fade. Keep this in mind.

Wine doesn’t resist freezing and boiling. Never do it with wine.

Humidity is very important for cork. Dried and cracked cork means death for wine.
For the same reason, wine should be kept in a horizontal position to allow the wine to soak the cork.

Keep your favourite wines correctly and they will please you!

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