What happens as wine ages

Some things do not get better with age. Milk. Leftover tuna casserole. Skin. Adam Sandler movies.

But wine is different. Aged wine can offer a profound tasting experience. But for the casual wine drinker, some questions might arise. What type of wine do you choose to stow away, and how do you store it properly? When exactly is the right time to pop the cork?

The average consumer wants something that’s immediately enjoyable, not with a drinking window a decade away. But if you’re inclined, and you have a bit of space, you should absolutely stash a few bottles as an experiment to see how they change over time.

What does wine need to age well?

There are a few basic components of wine that help it age gracefully.

Acidity is one. Higher acid levels help preserve wine. That’s why some varietals like Barolo and Brunello or Riesling and Chenin Blanc do so well.

Tannins also give a wine staying power. Red wines have more tannin than whites because they’re macerated with skins, which lends more tannins. Tannins are part of a larger category of phenolics in wine. Phenolics include chemicals that affect the taste, color and mouthfeel. Wines like Cabernet, Syrah and Nebbiolo have comparatively higher levels of phenolics and tannins.

In addition to acidity and tannins, a number of other factors come into play. The vintage, grape type, storage conditions and sugar levels all affect a wine’s ability to age.

How does aging affect wine?

A lot can happen. Flavors change, colors lighten, textures soften. It really depends on the wine.

Take a Cabernet Sauvignon for example. Upon release the fruit flavors may be restrained, tannins abrasive and overwhelming, oak too pronounced. In short, unbalanced and shy.

After a few years the oak starts to blend in better, the fruit takes form, and the tannins soften. Another decade goes by and the tannins have all but dissipated, the fruit has turned from fresh and bright to a bit more stewed, and new savory flavors of earth, mushroom, leather and spice hop into the front seat. The once bright garnet color takes on a brick orange tint.

Now, whether or not you like it better or worse after ten years largely depends on your own subjective tastes. Eventually, the wine will turn a corner, the fruit will all but disappear, structure will fall apart and there won’t be much to swoon over.

Three bottles of Sauternes show just how dramatically the color can change over time.
Three bottles of Sauternes show just how dramatically the color can change over time.

White wines generally don’t age as well as reds. However, ones with high acidity like Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Sancerre, White Burgundy and Riesling can all age very well. Some quite a bit longer than reds. Unlike red wine, which loses its color, white wines with age darken, turning from bright yellow to a deeper gold due to oxidation, or even brownish tint. Fresh fruit flavors turn honeyed, and a pronounced nuttiness often emerges.

How long can some wines age?

Riesling (2-30 years)

You might be surprised to learn Riesling is one of the most capable white wines for aging. The high acidity and sugar content makes an exceptional foundation to develop over many years. Even a cheap $15 bottle, if it has enough acidity, can make a worthy addition to a long term collection.

Chenin Blanc (4-30 years)

Vouvray in particular is the best choice, especially one with a little sweetness that paired with the high acidity. Some bottles could probably remain drinkable for your entire lifetime, especially the demi-sec and moelleux bottlings.

Cabernet Sauvignon (5-50 years)

Nothing seems to get as much reverence as an old Bordeaux from a great vintage. Same goes for some esteemed Napa Cabs like Ridge, Heitz, Corison, Dunn and Diamond Creek to name just a few.

Pinot Noir (5-15 years)

Great Burgundy almost needs a minimum aging requirement to hit full potential. Many can go decades before heading downhill. Some Californian Pinots can also go the distance but that largely depends on their acidity levels.

Nebbiolo (5-20 years)

Barolo and Barbaresco are almost undrinkable when young thanks to their immense tannin structure. However that’s what contributes to their ability to develop over many years.

Of course this is just a sampling and there’s no hard and fast rule governing how long any particular wine will last.

Verdicchio, particularly the riservas, make for an interesting white wine that ages well, often showing their best side 5-10 years after bottling. It’s also quite affordable, making it an ideal choice if you want to buy six bottles and experiment with letting them sit for a while.

Enemies of aging

Certain outside influences also affect how long a wine remains drinkable.

Sunlight can stir up free radicals in the wine, causing premature oxidation. So don’t leave your wine on the windowsill and expect it to change for the better. Temperature is important and should remain around 55 degrees. Higher temperatures will cook the wine, and even cause the cork to push out from the neck of the bottle (that’s why we hold shipments in hot weather). That’s why having proper storage, usually a wine fridge, is important.

Finally there’s impatience. It’s not easy to stare at a delicious bottle for a decade or more. In today’s world of instant gratification, restraint is key.

Just remember 90% or more of the wines you see on the supermarket shelf will not improve over time. We’re looking at you box wine.

Mike Meisner

Mike Meisner

Mike is the resident content creator for the Last Bottle blog. When he's not spilling wine on his keyboard he can be found wandering the aisles in the warehouse with a Coravin in hand, whispering to bottles "This will only hurt for a second".
Mike Meisner

Join the discussion