How and Why Wine Ages
Aging is most noticeably the process of the
tannins in the wine reacting with other components until they are
unable to stay in solution, where upon they become sediment
(precipitation). While this is happening, the aromas of the grape are
replaced by the bouquet of the aged wine (reductive aromas). At the
same time, the color in the wine either lightens if it is a red wine
(the anthocyanins - red pigments - bond to the sediment) or in white
wine the color turns brown (oxidizes, just like a bite out of an
apple - reds do this too, but it is harder to see).
So a hard, tannic red wine will, with luck, become
softer in the mouth; less fruity, and more wood/leather in the nose,
and generally more complex and full of nuance as it ages. An oaky
white wine will become less fruity in the nose, more golden in color,
and more complex and subtle in the taste (more caramel and less fruit
It is impossible to make general rules about how
long any given wine will age. For example, while it is certain that
many Cabernet Sauvignons will indeed age 5-7 years, there are plenty
that will not age at all (the fruitier, less expensive styles) and
more that will age for decades (the richer, more expensive
The factors that allow a wine to age are quite
complex, but here are a couple of rules of thumb:
- The wine must have a fairly high level of
Tannin to age at all.
- All the tannin in the world is no good if the
wine has no Acidity to keep it fresh tasting.
- Acidity and tannin are all well and good, but
it is fruit that makes wine taste good, and if there is not enough
fruit in the wine, then when it ages it will taste like
- The fuller a wine in all 3 of these
components, the longer it will age.
The tannins can either come from the grapes
themselves (skins and seeds) or (especially in the case of white)
from being aged in wood, usually oak. Grape tannins are more subtle,
but often as strong, and rarely as astringent (mouth drying) as oak
tannins. Grape tannins are better than oak when it comes to aging,
hence grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, with thicker skins, tend to
have better aging potential.
The acidity, while it can be added (illegal in
many parts of the world), like the fruit, primarily comes from the
grape itself. Acidity can be balanced in the winemaking process, but
the best vintages have a perfect balance of tannin, fruit and
acidity, in the grape itself.
More generalities: Cab ages best. Pinot ages
surprisingly well, if it is a great Pinot. Chardonnay, when it is
oaky, not only ages, but really needs a few years to even out. Merlot
needs high levels of Cab in the blend to age well, Syrah rarely ages
particularly well, except for true Rhones.
Keep your wine at 55F in order to age it. Wine
ages more quickly at 70F+ but the resulting product is less complex,
so you could say that wine actually falls apart faster at 70F than at
55F. Keep your wines at a level 55F and they will age slowly and
The most important way to tell if your wine is
ready to drink, is to taste a bottle. This seeming paradox is one of
the best reasons to buy wine by the case.