Some of the most profound and memorable wines I have had in my life have been older. In many ways these are the wines that keep me coming back for more and feed the addiction of collectors the world over. As time goes on the fruit structure takes on more complexity, the tannins soften, and all the components of the wine seem to fall in perfect harmony with each other. Certainly, there has been a premium put on aged wine with many of the old world countries writing minimum gaining requirements into law. Spanish Gran Reserva needs to be aged a minimum of four years before release, one year longer if it is from Rioja. In Italy, Barolo Reserva requires a minimum of five years of total aging and Brunello has some of the longest aging requirements with its Reserva classification being released a full six years after bottling. Extended aging is not reserved just for red wine. Many white and sparkling wines can continue to improve with age, as well. In Champagne, for instance, the minimum aging requirements for Vintage Champagne is just three years, but in practice it is common for the top vintage cuvee to be released closer to the 10-year mark. With many of these elder wines commanding prices that cost more than most people’s first car, the question it begs is: Are older wines better?
To answer that we must first look at what makes a bottle of wine age-worthy. While there is no one thing that gives wine the ability to age, acidity is one of the most important things. Acidity is what gives wine it’s freshness and vibrancy, and if you don’t have high enough acidity going in, then it won’t magically appear later. Acid levels tend to drop the riper the fruit becomes and once the fruit is picked, the acid levels are essentially set for the wine. If your fruit is too ripe, then the wine will be flat. If it is under ripe, then it will be vegetal and tart. Typically, a long and warm growing season with cool nights is preferred, so that ripening is even, sugars are slow to develop, and acids are preserved. The result is a wine that will have forward and tightly wound fruit in its youth and will continue to develop complexity over time.
Where it comes from also plays into the context of age-ability. Old world wine has a reputation of being more age-worthy than new world wine due to the cooler growing regions and naturally higher acidity. With that said, it also has more variability from vintage to vintage. For example, Bordeaux may see two or three warm or hot vintages, three or four vintages of variable weather, and two or three cool and rainy vintages in a decade. California, on the other hand, will see six or seven warm or hot years, two or three variable years, and one or two cool rainy years in a decade. More often the higher acid Bordeaux must contend with the fall rains and cool weather keeping the fruit from fully ripening while California must worry about the hot weather creating over ripe, unevenly ripe, and raisined fruit that will lack the acidity.
Grape varieties will also play into the hand of age-ability. Red wines are generally more age-worthy than whites. Though this is meant in the broadest of terms. The six original noble varieties were bestowed with the term because they have the potential to produce some of the more long-lived wines and retain a sense of character no matter where they are planted. As time went on, that list was expanded to eighteen. White varieties are Chardonnay, Riesling, Viura, Semillon, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Viognier. The red grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Grenache, Syrah, and Nebbiolo. There are others that can produce an age-worthy wine, but these are going to be the most common.
Wine making style can also come into play. Classic wine styles allowed for red wines to have firmer tannins and a fresh fruit character. This allowed the wine to soften over time and round out the fruit and spice components. Classically styled wines from a great vintage and producer will last for decades in the right environment. Modern wine making style is pushing the limits of ripeness, alcohol and extraction, at the same time producing a softer style of wine. Many of these wines are designed for more immediate drinking and lack the structure to last more than a couple of years. Many of today’s high scoring wines are made in this fashion.
Finally, storage conditions will affect the age-ability of wine. It is commonly thought that 55°F and 80% humidity in a dimly lit or dark place is the best environment for long term wine storage. The warmer it is, the faster the wine will develop, and worries of modernization start to set in. The closer to freezing it gets, the more susceptible the wine becomes to bruising and being damaged, as well. Prolonged exposure to sun light will cause the wine to prematurely lose its color. Lower than 70% humidity runs the risk of corks drying out and oxidation occurring. Greater than 90% humidity increases the chance of mold and rot infiltrating your wines.
As you can see there are a lot of variables to what makes a wine age-worthy or not. A wine that was stored perfectly, came from a great vintage, and was made from a noble variety, in a prominent region, by a classic winemaker, may disappoint the taster, as personal preference is a big factor. Many people don’t like older wines. Instead they may prefer a fresher style.
The question again is: Are older wines better? The answer is: Sometimes. Not all wine is built the same and can last the long haul. Aging a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau for 10 years would surely be a waste while aging a classified Bordeaux for the same amount of time could be just its beginning. Aging wine is not without risk and there is no set formula for it. At its worst the wine is flat lifeless and can taste like vinegar. At its best, an older mature wine will be seamless, almost sublime. It will dance on your palate delicately and continue to evolve, unfolding layer upon layer of subtlety as it lingers, before slowly fading away, preparing you for your next sip. It is a graceful reminder of the life behind it. And for this reason, I collect and age wine. While it is always better to drink your wine too young than too old, waiting an extra year or two may pay dividends. This is the game and when played well, we are rewarded with a treat that will take us on a journey through time.