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Wine and Time : The Myth of Aging Gracefully

We have often heard it said that all wine improves with age. This is a myth about wine that refuses to go away. The great majority of wine made today, however, is ready to drink within a year or so of being bottled and only a few have the potential to improve over time.

Wine cellar
Wine cellar
Almost any inexpensive wine, especially whites and ros├ęs, as well as light-bodied, low-tannin reds are at their best when young. It is their freshness and youthful fruitiness that appeals to us and these are the qualities that fade with time.

Determining which wines to age needs an understanding of the three important characteristics of wine; acidity, alcohol and tannins.

Aging Red Wines

A fine red wine goes into a bottle from barrel containing a mix of tannins, pigments and all sorts of flavor compounds collectively called phenolics. Good wines have more of these properties in a balanced proportion than ordinary wine and great wines more than good wines.

In the bottle tannins continue to interact with pigments and acids to form new compounds and molecules. This means as wine ages, it loses color and sharpness but gains complexity and sediment. Likewise the acids and alcohol react together with oxygen to form compounds called esters and aldehydes. The overall effect is to produce a much more delicate and complex wine.

Aging White Wines

The equivalent process in white wines is largely dependent on acidity as it tends to have lesser phenolics compared to red wines rich in tannins. These attributes tend to mellow with age into honeyed, nutty or savory complexities. Therefore white wines with higher acidity will tend to last longer and mature well if they have sufficient flavor compounds. A wine that starts with lower acidity will flatten out and lose its zest if not consumed early.

Alcohol Level effect on Aging

The level of Alcohol is another important element in wine aging. Alcohol is volatile in non-fortified wines and causes wine to degrade or turn to vinegar more quickly. Generally speaking, the lower the alcohol level (12 - 14 %) in a non-fortified wine the longer it will last.

Climate effect on Aging

Climate plays an important role in the tannins and acidity characteristics of a wine. So red grapes with thick skins and therefore higher tannins, typically the product of a dry climate or year, are likely to age longer than those from wet years whose skin to pulp ratio is much lower. Similarly, white wines made from grapes grown in cooler climate regions or year are likely to need longer before their acidity mellows to an acceptable level.

Overall Balance

Generally speaking, the more tannins in a red wine and the more acidity in a white, the longer the wines will age. However much will also depend on the fruit flavors of the wine and the right proportion of all these attributes to create a complex and harmoniously balanced wine from further ageing in bottle.


References

The World Atlas of Wine

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