Understanding Wine Cellaring: How your wine will age (or not)
‘[Insert gender/thing here] has aged like a fine wine.’ That’s the old saying, and it’s entered popular culture like many other easy-breezy sayings. And in part it’s true, but only the fine wine part. Not all wine ages well, and not all wine ages like you expect it to do. In wine, though, there’s always a caveat. And in this case, the caveat is that some wines will truly surprise you – but that’s maybe more luck than good intentions. Sometimes I will hear someone rave about a wine that was only expected to be drinkable for 5-10 years before it deteriorated, and yet 20 years later it bursts from the bottle. Here are a few rules to help you understand if and how your wine will age.
Two key areas – Acid and Tannin
Tannin is found in the skin, pips and stems of grapes. Primarily, the biggest tannin influence is the skins, which is fermented with the juice in the case of red wine. The skins impart colour but the skin tannin provides structure to the wine – a scaffold, if you like. Depending on the terroir, the growing methods, the treatment of the grapes, and the way they are vinified, the tannins will change in different ways. Essentially, some grape varietals are more tannic than others, and when drunk will give a lip-puckering astringency, or sticky feeling where your lip sticks to your teeth. That is tannin the most extreme sense. Tannin also coats your tongue (as it is in the juice), and can feel round, ‘grippy’, chocolatey, grainy, or other sensations. Tannins will also dry your mouth to some degree. How it feels influences whether you will like it or not!
The acid in the wine will also give it longevity, depending on its quality and quantity. Like tannins, acid will develop differently in different climates, and can be altered during the winemaking process. Acid can be tasted as a mouth-watering sensation in your mouth, and possibly a tingly feeling on the sides of your tongue.
How do tannin and acid help your wine age? Well, as we know, tannin provides a structure. As the wine ages, the tannin sort of, well, dissolves, allowing the wine to become smoother and it forms part of the lumpy sediment in very old reds. With acid in whites and reds, the higher the acid (generally), the longer the wine will last. Acid also dissolves into an aged wine, helping provide a bed for the fruit as it changes through primary, secondary and tertiary levels of ageing.
Alcohol – it doesn’t just get you drunk, it helps your wine age.
Generally, the lower the alcohol, the longer the wine will age. As I said, though, tannin and acid also need to be in balance here to make all this come together! Although the alcohol level does not change after fermentation, when the wine’s flavours change in the bottle over time, the alcohol may taste different, and be stronger or weaker. Basically, alcohol fits within the wine’s structure and helps to guide it along.
Wines are potent in their youth – the best show amazing varietal characters even in their infancy, and develop that further as they go on. Even though smells of the wine’s youth dissipate over time, newer ones are formed (called esters) that influence its ‘older’ or ‘mature’ smell. For example, Riesling exudes a rather oily smell when it is aged, because the chemical component that develops is similar to kerosene.
Often you will see old bottles of wine that have lost a fair bit of the original wine volume. It might be ‘below the shoulder’ or something similar. This is because the wine breathes ever so slightly during ageing, changing the flavour and aromatic compounds as air leaches in and out. These are often called ‘oxidative changes.’ Air also changes the colour of wine as it goes on – some red wines will develop a brick red colour, some white wines become more golden. This process is accelerated by higher temperatures, which is why you have to store your wine under the right temperature if you would like to be able to drink it in five, ten or twenty years time, or longer!
Five Basic Facts/Tips
Wine will age best when stored between 12 and 15 degrees Celsius. Lower than this, and your risk slowing the ageing process to a dull snail’s pace. Higher, and you will risk your wine ageing too fast or worse, going completely to pieces in the bottle.
If your wine has a cork, store it on its side, so that the wine is in contact with the cork. Otherwise, you may find the cork has crumbled over time (maybe due to dryness or too high/low humidity) and your wine will have lovely little bits floating through it!
Make sure you balance quality of the wine with its storage conditions. If you have a $5 bottle of sparkling is a mid-week quaffer, then you might not need a $1000 wine cooler, or a cellar. If you’re wanting to perfectly age wines over a period of more than a few months, then your kitchen fridge won’t do.
Alternate methods can work in the short term, but not forever. Something like polystyrene boxes can provide a good insulation effect over the short term, but if you’re going to buy Mouton Rothschild or similar, then something more substantial might be needed!
Not all wine ages. Some wines, even sparkling wines aged over many years, are released ‘ready to drink.’ This means that the winemaker has aged the wine for you, to a perfect condition. It’s yours to enjoy after that. However, many reds and whites are released with theirs eyes still squinting at all the bright lights, and are a bit timid to come out. These will needs years, maybe even decades in the cellar to show their glittering best.