Thanks to Morgan Harris and Vivino for allowing readers access to this article!! What drew me to this was the scientific explanations, his use of foreign terms, and the thoroughness of his research. Often I am asked these same questions- “Why and when should I age/keep my wine?” “How do I know when to drink my good wine?” This article gives such complete information, I will be referring my friends to Morgan’s piece. Merci beaucoup, Morgan Harris, you are amazing!!
Your Guide to Aging Wine: Why and When You Should Age Wine
Aging Specific Wine Styles
When you buy wine, it’s first as a possession, but to get maximum enjoyment out of it, you’ll need to consume the wine at some point. Let’s face it: you’re supposed to drink wine, not hoard it. Advice on cellaring wine is often looked at as some sort of “right or wrong” situation. People often couch the discussion in terms of the “best” time to drink a wine, as if it had been chiseled into a marble slab by one of the ancient wine wizards, Ten Commandments-style. Thou shalt not drink your Saint Emilion before ten years of age.
Ultimately there’s no accounting for taste, de gustibus non est disputandum. When you think a wine is best will not be when everyone else thinks it’s best, but that’s not saying that there isn’t a general received wisdom among experienced wine drinkers on how exactly wines develop in bottle.
Why is this important? If you’re going to start accumulating wine, it’s good to know how your wines will develop so you can catch them in the right place for your own drinking. You can cellar anything you want for as long as you want, but you might not like the results.
French Wisdom: Knowing the Types of Wine in Your Cellar
The French, who have drunk a few bottles of wine in their time, wisely divide wine into two categories. The first type, Vin de Soif, or “thirst wine” is what you might call a patio pounder in English. These wines you want to drink in their youth because they simply never change for the better for most people, since the whole point is their youthful, fruity vibrancy. Think good Beaujolais, $15 bottles of California Sauvignon Blanc, Prosecco, and most every rosé. These wines are usually quite affordable ($10-$30 US).
The second, Vin de Garde or “keeping wine,” is wine that can (notice I don’t say should) be held onto in the cellar. These wines, by definition are more serious in terms of their structure. They will give joy and pleasure in their youth in many instances, but they will continue to develop, changing and maturing for many years to come. Serious Bordeaux, Burgundy (of 1er cru and above quality), the great “B” wines of northern Italy (Brunello, Barolo, Barbaresco), Rioja Gran Reserva and old-school California Cabernet would be great poster children for the Vin de Garde.
What’s Happening When Wine Ages
Cork is a porous medium, meaning it will exchange oxygen through it. Even screwcaps come with variable oxygen permeability, although they almost always go on wines that are intended to be drunk within 3-5 years of the vintage. The oxygen coming through a closure is slowly altering the chemical structure of the wine. That low-and-slow exposure to oxygen is causing a wine to develop.
Wine is, ultimately, a fermented fruit product. In the wine’s youth, the focus will always be mostly on the fruity end of the spectrum. Vibrant. Vigorous. Fresh. Intense. These are all descriptors used for youthful wines. As the wine ages, this youthful energy will be replaced by more savory aromas. For the most age-worthy wines, this will happen in a long, graceful parabola, shifting from fruity to savory aromas, with both types of aromas co-habiting for a portion of its life. Age a wine too long and it will become all savory, brown and fruitless.
The trick is to catch the wine at the right balance point for you. Where do you like your balance of savory and fruity aromas? Even among experienced wine drinkers and collectors, there’s a lot of disagreement when a wine tastes “best.” One person may prefer a wine in vintages from the late ’70s, in a more savory stage, while another likes vintages from the early ’90s, in which there’s more fruit. Neither of them is “Right” with a capital R, but they’ve had enough wine to know their preference.
The Aging Factors
Ph.Ds have been written trying to directly quantify specific factors for ageability in wines, so I’m going to speak more here of factors that are generally agreed to improve how cellarable a wine is. The harmony and intensity of these elements are most important to a wine’s long-term development. Often the factors below are collectively referred to as a wine’s “structure”.
Acid: Tarter wines with higher acid levels generally age better than those with lower acids.
Sugar: Without a doubt the great sweet whites of the world are some of the most ageable wines on the planet: German Riesling, Sauternes, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, Tokaj can all go the long-haul. Their sugar protects and preserves. None of the fine red wines of the world have sugar, so there’s a non-factor there.
Tannin: Only present in red wines, as it comes from grape skins, tannins are perceived as that sort of cotton-ball, drying sensation you get with some red wines. Generally higher tannin means a longer development curve in the cellar, but also may lead to awkward backwards stages for the wine.
Alcohol: There’s a sweet-spot here. Too much and a wine becomes out of balance, and likewise with too little. Generally alcohol is what gives a wine body, or mouthfeel (think skim, 2% or whole milk) to a wine.
Outside of these factors, you also have the overall aromatic and palate intensity of the wine to consider. If the wine is powerfully aromatic in its youth and its structure is harmonious, then you’ve got a good candidate for a few years in the cellar.
The greatest vintages tend to generate wines that have all these factors in harmony. Colder, wetter vintages stray toward higher acid and tannins, with lower alcohols and lower intensity aromatics. Hotter vintages will generate more alcohol, less acid, and wines with overripe and jammy fruit aromas. A-typically warm or cold vintages may generate wines that are more enjoyable for certain tastes.
Many other factors will shape how a wine develops. For example, large formats (i.e. magnums and larger bottles) will always age more slowly than smaller formats because you have a larger volume of wine for basically the same size cork (i.e. oxygen path). Vintages will always be variable. Producers are of differing quality, even within very small wine production areas. I will always choose a top producer in a terrible vintage over a mediocre producer in a great vintage. That being said, there are some vintages when most every producer made great wine.
Watch Out for the Rules
Always beware the categorical imperative in wine. For example, don’t assume you can’t age any Beaujolais. “If this then that” is dangerously rigid. There’s always exceptions, for better or worse. I would be happy to have a case of serious Bandol rosé or single-vineyard cru Beaujolais to age in my cellar. And likewise, there’s a lot of very serious, expensive wine that’s plenty delicious to drink in its youth, such as grand cru red Burgundy or prestige cuvée Champagne.
Wine Aging Glossary
Backwards: “The ’10 Cornas is really backwards right now.” A synonym for “shutdown,” a wine that’s in an awkward phase, usually an ungiving point where it’s neither developed and savory or youthful and fruity. If it does occur, this is usually in the 5-10 year age range for most serious wines. “Hard” or “Ungiving” are often used as a less-serious version of backwards.
Drinking: “This 2000 Barolo is drinking right now.” The opposite of backwards, simply meaning that the wine is aromatically giving and tasting appropriate for its age range.
Fresh or Youthful: “This twenty-year old Margaux is crazy fresh.” Usually used to describe an older wine (10+ years) that has a surprising amount of youthful, fruity aromas for its age.
Fully Developed: “This ’92 Brunello is fully-developed.” i.e. it’s not getting any better. At the apex or in decline for the appraisers taste.
Dead: “The ’66 Champagne is totally dead.” Browned-out, fruitless, without any life, vigor or pleasure-giving potential.
Starting Your Cellar
The two most crucial factors in starting to acquire wine for your cellar are:
- Where your wine is coming from
- How they been and are going to be stored
Finding high-quality retailers with reliable staff as well as reputable auction houses will be the best way to find mature wines with good provenance (i.e. they were stored well before they got to you and that they’re not fakes).
Secondly, you need to have a space to store your wine responsibly. Ideally, this will be about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature shouldn’t fluctuate much, since every single time a bottle’s temperature changes, pressure has to equalize in the bottle, pulling more oxygen into the bottle. Absolute darkness is best, but any sort of exposure to light, especially sunlight should be limited.
Aging wine is ultimately a chemical reaction, accelerated by heat and slowed by cold temperatures. Lower temperature cellars will slow a wine’s aging. Likewise, if you keep the wines above your stove or in your living room over a hot summer, you’re going to accelerate their aging, and not in a beneficial way. Generally, given a choice between too cold and too warm, you’re better off with too cold.
Lastly, your cellar, whether it’s in your basement or in a wine fridge, should have moderate humidity (to keep your corks from drying out) and should be out of sunlight, which can also damage wine. Store bottles on their side or upside down, so that wine is in contact with the cork, keeping them moist.
Once these factors are in line, you can start thinking about what to buy. Keep in mind, to accumulate a cellar, you need to purchase wine faster than you’re drinking it. Think about buying wines you like in 3-6 bottle quantities, so you can track their development. Also, your taste will change too as you journey into wine, so those quantities don’t leave you with so much wine in which you’ll look at your cellar someday saying, “How the hell am I going to drink all this stuff I don’t really like anymore?”
Only about 200 wines on the planet can potentially accrue value ahead of inflation, and they are all already phenomenally expensive – think Domaine de La Romanée Conti’s La Tâche, Leflaive Montrachet, Egon Muller Scharzhofberg Auslese, or Lafite-Rothschild, to name a few. None of these wines are values by any stretch of the imagination. It’s probably smarter to buy real estate or invest in a mutual fund. You’re not tempted to drink those!
Learn From Other People’s Drinking
There’s very little that’s a hard rule, something you might call a science, about cellaring wine and determining when you will like to drink it. As I’ve said, any advice on how wine develops is just a series of guidelines. A community like Vivino provides a great way to figure out where wines are, and to share your own drinking experiences to help others determine when they might want to drink the wines they’ve been saving. Use them to help you save yourself from potential disappointment. At the end of the day though, wine is for drinking and there’s only one way to figure out what it tastes like, so keep popping bottles!
**If you would like additional aging information on specific varietals, please check out his post!! (It is found in Vivino under “Featured”, “Wine 101”, and “Tips and Tricks”.)