What happens to Wine as it ages?
The other day, I heard for perhaps the thousandth time in my life the following cliche: “Oh, X is like fine wine… it gets better with age”, where X usually refers to a person, self-conscious about the fact that none of us are getting any younger. This got me asking myself the following questions: does all fine wine improve with age? Do any poor quality wines also improve with age? Which wines – if any – are best drunk young and fresh, and the younger the better? And most pertinently of all – what actually happens to wine as it ages?
There’s no doubt about the fact that the very top of end of the wine world is typified by aged bottles. The great wine collections and cellars of the world feature some astonishingly old wines, and many of the big releases from the major chateaus of Bordeaux and similar wineries recommend cellaring their produce for decades. In this way, wine becomes a powerful and valuable investment, or even an heirloom; destined to never be opened by the owner, and merely passed from collector to collector, gaining value and (so we’re told) quality over the years. So, let’s take a closer look at some of those questions, and explore the murky – and not entirely understood, even by the experts – world of the wine cellar, where bottles lie and wait, undergoing subtle metamorphoses as the pages of the calendar fall away.
Not All Wines are Created Equal
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of wines are not ‘age-worthy’ – that is, their structure and character means that they are best drunk young, when their sharpness, fruit flavours or softness can be expressed as the winemaker intended. This is true of the vast majority of white wines (which are generally valued for their zesty, acidic character), and most easy-drinking or medium bodied reds and rosé wines, too.
If you were to age these wines, or simply leave them in a wine rack, cellar or a drinks cupboard for too long, you’d find that when you come to open them, the wine will have gone ‘flat’ and ‘flabby’ – losing structure, developing flaws, or simply tasting highly unpleasant… and nobody wants that!
The Aging Process
Whether in a barrel or a bottle, wine ages by a slow and steady process of oxidation. Almost all organic substances are susceptible to oxidation – just look at what happens when a slice of apple is exposed to the air for thirty minutes or so; the oxygen kick starts a chemical reaction, which changes the structure of the fruit. While too much oxidation will quite quickly spoil a wine, tiny quantities of oxygen entering a bottle via a porous material such as cork can have a high beneficial and sought-after effect.
Indeed, the benefits of slight oxidation in wine is very easy to detect. When we pour ourselves some of our favourite vino at the end of a hard day, the first thing we do is swish it slightly around the glass. Why? Simply because this is a quick and effective way of starting that oxidation process. This almost immediately allows the astringent tannins (the chemicals which cause that rough, mouth-puckering, drying effect in a full-bodied red wine) and acids to ‘open up’ and begin to soften, causing the complexities and subtleties in the wine to become more detectable. After all, that’s the intention of every vintner; to produce wines which are multifaceted, and capable of expressing more than the sum of their parts.
In the glass, oxidation happens quickly. After all, when swilled around, its maximised surface area gets plenty of exposure. In a barrel or a cork-sealed bottle, however, this is going to happen very, very gradually, over a long period of time. It is this gentle, infinitesimal exposure to oxygen – via tiny holes in cork or oak wood – which causes what we know as ageing. Let’s take a look at the different aspects of a wine and how they mature over time.
How Colours Change
The first thing you’ll notice when comparing a young and an aged wine of the same grape varietal or style is the difference in colour. Young, fresh red wines generally have a deeper, ruby-red or violet colour, with aged examples being a little paler and closer to orange tones. If you wait a very long time, an aged red wine can even look brown. Relatively few white wines are purposefully aged (Chardonnay and Riesling wines are regularly cellared, but few other varietals are deemed age-worthy) but will take on a golden, amber or orangey-brown tint when cellared for certain amounts of time.
How Aromas Change
Quite what happens to a wine’s aromas and flavours over time is still something of a mystery, which scientists don’t fully understand. Herein lies the magic and alchemy of viticulture and wine production; tiny changes happening together, and resulting in something often completely unexpected. There’s no solid rule as to what happens to a wine’s aroma over time, but the aromas of age-worthy wines will certainly gain strength and ‘complexity’ as they age, as the tannins eventually release volatile aroma chemicals present in the wine. This usually means a shift from fruit aromas (blackberries, plums, etc) to herbal, spiced or other notes in the bouquet, and a much greater array of detectable fragrances. Fine red wines often pick up aromas of leather, tobacco and smoke, while an aged Riesling will sometimes have a bouquet reminiscent of forest floors.
How Flavours Change
Generally speaking, wines which have the most tannin and acidity when young are those generally considered the most age-worthy. As a result, these wines can actually sometimes be quite unpalatable on release – you’ll often see words like ‘tight’ and ‘closed’ used to describe that harsh, overly tannic character. Given a few years or longer in a cellar, however, and oxidation causes those tannins begin to polymerise, forming long strings which deeply affect the way they are perceived on the tongue. The acids, too, will be soften and rounded by the time and exposure to air, which will allow far more flavours to be experienced by the drinker. Bright, fresh fruit flavours start to resemble dried, stewed or cooked fruits. The mouthfeel of the wine will be considerable softer, with all of those harsh edges smoothed away. Tartness disappears, and a luxurious, silken character will take its place, revealing layer upon layer of taste which can be thrilling to encounter.
How do winemakers decide if a wine will age well or not?
There’s a fine art to deciding which vintage is going to be best suited to cellaring, and collectors and investors keep their ears close to the ground each year to try and snap up future classics. Essentially, it comes down to the winery experts taking into consideration the climatic conditions of a particular vintage year, and understanding how that will affect the level of tannin and acid in the wine produced. The more acid and tannin, and the stronger the structure, the more suited the wine is to lengthy cellaring.
So, there you have it – a brief guide to how wine ages, and what to expect from a well aged wine. What are your thoughts? Do you prefer your wines fresh and young, or do you appreciate the luxury of a bottle which has benefited from a decade in the cellar? Let us know in the comments below!