To the casual wine drinker, the question of how long to age a bottle of wine can seem intimidating. Wine can even go bad like the food in your refrigerator if it’s not stored correctly, no matter its potential. Some bottles of wine can improve with thoughtful aging. Collecting wine and keeping the wine in your collection for the right length of time can open up a new world of wine discovery for the casual collector or connoisseur.
Some wines are bottled precisely when they are meant to be opened and shared, while others can be saved and savored after undergoing a beneficial aging process. If some wines are suitable for aging while others are not, how can you spot the differences? How long should you age that beautiful Zinfandel you just received as a thoughtful gift? There are a few factors to consider, including the acidity of a wine, its sugar content, the level of tannins, and how high the alcoholic content is.
Tannins in wine are derived from the skin of the grape or from the vessel the wine is aged in, such as an oak barrel. Tannins are responsible for the slightly bitter taste that is present in red wine and are what give red wine a more robust mouthfeel than white wine. The higher the level of tannins in a wine, the more likely a bottle of wine is to improve with aging.
When a bottle of red wine ages, its appearance will change in a way that might make you wonder if you’ve made a mistake. Red wine will lose its familiar rich ruby color as it ages due to the structural breakdown of the tannins. It may well end up looking rustier, but that’s normal. Sediment may appear at the bottom of the bottle too, and, while it’s not harmful to drink, most people prefer to decant and remove the sediment before enjoying an aged red wine.
There is no hard and fast rule as to which bottles of wine will improve with age, but even a casual wine drinker can probably discern some obvious clues. Cheaper bottles of mass-produced brands of wine are not typically as complex and are meant to be served right away.
White wine is in contact with the skin of the grape for much less time than red and therefore contains far fewer tannins. Certain white varietals, such as Chardonnay, are often aged in oak barrels, which will lend some tannins to the wine. Chardonnay can often benefit from being set aside for a while.
To determine if a bottle of white should be put away in your wine cellar, you need to take factors other than tannins into account. The sugar content in white wine is often going to be one of the most essential details to think about. Sweet wines, such as a fine Riesling or a well-balanced Gewürztraminer, should mellow and balance over time because the fruitiness and high sugar content act as a preservative of sorts. Like red, white wine will change in appearance as it ages. White wine will typically oxidize and look browner than when new.
White wines generally should not be aged as long as reds, even when the wines in question are of similar quality and have been made with a high level of expertise. As with red wine, cheaper, mass-produced white wine is ready to be opened and poured when you buy it, so feel free to have a glass with dinner.
Champagne can be a good candidate for aging, even though it appears to have more in common with white wine. The high acidity and carbon dioxide present in the bottle can act as a sort of preservative. Champagne will change over time and develop a nuttier flavor. More so than any other wine, however, a bottle of champagne has to be of high quality to benefit from aging. In addition, no wine is more finicky depending on storage conditions than a bubbly type.
With fortified wines like Sherry and Port, you can really lean into aging wine. Fortified wine has an added ingredient, such as grape brandy. The higher alcohol content will preserve the wine for many years if you start with a high-quality bottle and take care to store it properly. If you’d like to leave a bottle to your grandchildren, a fortified wine might be what you’re looking for.
No matter the bottle of wine, it will not age well unless stored carefully. Extreme temperatures should be avoided, so make sure you don’t tuck your case of wine near the furnace or in the freezing storage room under the stairs. Variations in temperature can cause a wine to lose quality rather than gain fuller flavors. Most wines should be kept in a cool, consistent environment. Sunlight is the enemy of wine as well—winemakers age wine in caves for a reason!
If you’re thinking of starting a wine collection, or if you’re ready to learn more about designing and installing a custom wine cellar in your home, Harkraft can help by sharing our expertise. Contact us today to learn more.