What Makes A Wine Age-Worthy?
Brian Branco - Certified Specialist of Wine
Most wine is typically consumed the same day it's purchased. Only a small fraction of wine produced has the components to help it age gracefully.
Aged wines evolve over time, unraveling aromas that weren't there 1-2 years after bottling. Tannins are tough and astringent at first, while the nose brings on fruitier aromas. If there is oak involved, it may start out overpowering especially if the barrels are new. With time though, some of the components in the liquid harmonize, tannins polymerize and get too heavy for the solution, eventually falling out and producing that sediment you see at the end of the bottle. Color will fade taking on a browner, tawny rim, while the flavors will turn toward savory and earthy.
Which factors can help a wine age?
Tannins may dry out your mouth, but they also give structure to a wine. These are polyphenols that are ethanol-soluble. That means once fermentation starts kicking in, they begin to be absorbed from contact with the grape skins, stems, and seeds, or via barrel aging as oak imparts tannin. (Color extraction is water-soluble, so it starts earlier!) Tannin has a strong oxygen uptake capacity making it much easier for reds to hang around longer in the cellar.
Along with the grape variety itself, conditions in the vineyard also have an impact with the amount of tannin. Windy, difficult conditions on higher elevation vineyards can develop thicker skins on the grapes versus grapes from vineyards on the valley floor.
Longevity in white wine typically owes itself to high acidity. You can think about Riesling and Chenin Blanc to understand this. It is vital to have high acidity in aged white wine as there is barely any tannin to combat the oxygen with. Luckily since wine has such a low pH, it prevents most spoilage organisms from harming it. But as you creep up higher in the pH scale, bad actors can start to appear.
Red wines with moderate tannin levels along with high acidity can typically age for a minimum of 10+ years. Italian varieties like Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are great examples of this. Not only do they make great food wines but it also gives a gritty sensation in the mouth as the perception of tannin is amplified when acid is higher. This is one of the reasons you will see Italian wines age longer in the winery before they are released to the public.
Higher acidity also increases the effectiveness of sulfur dioxide when protecting the wine from oxidation. Sulfur Dioxide is a preservative added to wines to help protect them from oxygen in their lifetime (in addition to other benefits prior to aging). Sulfur Dioxide in wine is much more available in its molecular form at a lower pH, giving SO2 a much more powerful punch against oxidation.
Sugar also acts as a preservative in wine. It does a great job at fighting oxygen, but the reasoning seems to be unclear. It has been stated that this is due to osmotic stress, which limits water. There has been credit given to botrytis cinerea (noble rot), the fungus that removes water from grapes and concentrates these sweet wines, while giving off honeyed aromas in the process.
Late harvest Rieslings along with the sweet wines of Sauternes and Tokaji are close to indestructible. Even after a few days open they remain flavorful and intense, doing a good job fighting the oxygen.
Alcohol % and Fortification with Spirits
Fortified wines have a neutral spirit like Brandy/Grappa added during or after fermentation. Wines will typically have around 20% ABV. Combined with the residual sugar and sufficient acidity; high alcohol percentage is a great preservative in fortified wines preventing any microbial issues.
Which wine varietals tend to age the best?
Barrel Aged Chardonnay
Late Harvest Riesling
Most sparkling wine (Champagne, Cava, Franciacorta, etc.) produced via the traditional method due to that CO2 in the bottle!
How to Age Wine?
If you do plan to age your wine, make sure it is stored in a consistently cool dark place at around 50-55˚F with sufficient humidity. Bottles with cork stoppers need to be laid down to prevent the cork from drying out and avoiding oxidation. If you happen to buy larger bottles like magnums, these wines age slower, while half-bottles age quicker, so plan accordingly!
I have a separate spot in the house hidden away for the wines that need more time in the bottle. A more visible spot in the house is for the daily drinkers, or whatever is ready to drink now from the cellar!
Luckily, all of the wines featured in your wine subscription from Gold Medal Wine Club will be ready to drink upon arrival! However, many of them are wines that would also age gracefully for years to come.
Author Bio: Brian is a graduate of the Institute for Enology and Viticulture in Walla Walla, WA, and a Certified Specialist of Wine via the Society of Wine Educators, Brian will be working his 3rd harvest this fall in a new region, the Willamette Valley. He feels there is always something new to learn about when it comes to the world of wine and that's what keeps it exciting. He hopes the industry will carry on being more inclusive and less pretentious giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy the world's greatest beverage.