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Sensory Characteristics of Wine as it Ages

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

stacks of wine barrels

Aged wine intrigues. There’s something about the mystery of evolution within a bottle. Will the wine you’re holding in your hand be better with age? If so, how? You can actually unwrap this mystery by understanding what happens to wine as it ages based on its different structural components and sensory characteristics. Here’s how you do it.

How to do a sensory evaluation of wine

Before jumping into the nuances of aged wine, a good starting place is a young wine that's just been uncorked. You can actually break down the different sensory experiences when you take a sip from your glass.

Pour yourself a glass and walk yourself through this quick sensory analysis of wine:

  • Sight. Young wines have vibrant color. Red wines may be purple or brilliant ruby. White wines will be clear or straw-colored, maybe a pale canary yellow.
  • Smell. Youthful wines should smell like a basket of fresh, juicy fruit. Whether it's orchard fruits – think green apple and nectarine - or warm black fruits like blueberry, blackberry, and crunchy red plum. The fruit will smell fresh.
  • Taste. Like the nose, a young wine will have vibrant acidity and play across your palate showcasing that fresh fruit profile.

What happens to wine as it ages?

As wines age, they transform themselves in the bottle. Acid and tannin levels tend to fall over time. This means that the bright fruit in a younger wine will come across as more muted and restrained. Likewise, wines with powerful levels of tannins (that drying sensation in wine) will mellow out, and the taste of wine will shift itself to be softer in your mouth all around.

The fruit itself ages too.

Not only does the intensity of the fruit fall away, but the fruit’s character shifts from fresh to dried over time. So instead of sour green apple, perhaps a bruised or dried apple quality emerges. Instead of fresh floral notes, the glass offers up a perfume of potpourri. This shift in fruit profile is actually a tell when doing blind tastings to identify the approximate age of a wine.

A glass of wine on top of aging bottles

Does all wine get better with age?

No, not all wines will get better with age. Alcohol is the one stable component in a bottle of wine. The alcohol level will maintain itself regardless of the age bottle’s age. Unfortunately, when the acid falls away, the tannins soften, and the fruit fades, wines that were not made for aging will come across as unbalanced with alcohol dominating in the glass.

How do I know if my wine will age?

The majority of wines are not intended for long term aging beyond a few years. Certainly nothing you buy at the corner liquor store or grocery store should be cellared.

When you open a fresh bottle of wine, good questions to ask yourself are:

  • What was the winemaker’s intent?
  • Is this wine intended to be enjoyed in its youth, with the vibrant fruit dancing across your palate?
  • Or is this a powerhouse of a wine that needs to mellow out some more before it can be fully appreciated?

wine bottles aging

Why do we age wine?

Wine lovers seek out ageable bottles because of the unique wine sensory experience: leather, dried fruit, earth, game – these are qualities that can only develop over time.

How to pick a wine to age?

Broadly speaking, ageable wines need intense fruit concentration so that as the wine ages, the fruit maintains. Paired with concentrated fruit, an ageable wine needs healthy levels of acidity which acts as a preservative for the fruit over time.

The best way to pick an ageable wine is to consult with your favorite wine shop clerk, or to investigate a producer’s history and read reviews of their wines online. How do their labels seem to hold up through the years?

If the goal is to lay down several bottles for cellaring, you’ll want to do your due diligence to ensure that you invest in wines that have the potential to age.

Whether you're looking for wine that you can age in your cellar, or a bottle that you can enjoy the moment you get it, our wine clubs are certain to have something that will satisfy your desires! Or, if you don't want to wait a month between shipments, browse our wine store and mix and match individual bottles across all of our clubs! Cheers!

Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.