How many times have you seen the following expressions – “That wine will last for years”; “it will develop nicely in the cellar”; “after a few years, it will be much better”. I know I have. Heck, I use some of them myself in this blog!
They all, of course, refer to aging wine. But what does that really mean and – more importantly – is the end result going to be something you like?
But before we get to the answers to these questions, let me first emphasize that we are talking almost exclusively here about red wine, not white wine. Very few dry whites benefit from any aging at all (Sweet whites, and reds, are a whole other story). German and Alsace Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, white Hermitage from the northern Cotes du Rhone, and a few Burgundies (like Chablis) are the exceptions. But if you cellar the vast majority of white wines, you run the very real risk that the oak that most of them are originally made in will quickly overpower the fruit, leaving you with a mouthful of vanilla flavoured wood.
For red wines, the main reason for aging them is to mellow the tannins, which come from the grapes’ skins and stems. They are what can make a young red wine “pucker” your mouth, a sensation similar to when you drink tea that has been steeping too long. Over time, the tannins in wine break down and soften, combining with the fruit to produce secondary aromas and flavours, and increasing overall complexity.
Now, over 99 percent of red wine doesn’t have to worry about this. It doesn’t have a lot of tannin and is best drunk within a year of release.
But the big problem with the rest is that while they taste different as they get older, they doesn’t necessarily taste any better! The main reason for this is a tradeoff – as wines age, they may get softer, but they also lose their fruit. And many people – including yours truly – like the taste of fruit (currants, cherries, plums and the like) in wine. After all, it is made from grapes, which are fruit!
As a result, older, mature red wines can be a very different experience indeed! The fresh fruit is replaced by more herbal and woody characteristics, as well as mushrooms, earth, pepper and other spices. More complex, yes…but more enjoyable? Well, that depends on your tastes!
I will never forget a Burgundy event I went to years ago. We were tasting what were supposed to be some very good red wines from the 1969, 1970 and 1970 vintages, all of which were over ten years old. But as we went through them, one by one, it was obvious the crowd was growing restless. Finally, when it was time for questions, one guy boldly said “These don’t have any fruit in them at all; they taste like %$&^@!”
The poor host tried to explain, without being condescending, what older wines taste like, how complexity was a good thing, but with little success, as most of the audience seemed to share the questioner’s perspective.
Personally, I find this a particular problem with Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc) and Merlot-based wines. The wood seems to really take over in many of them. My nemesis, of course, is Bordeaux, where this is seen as a positive quality by many (don’t get me started again about Bordeaux…). Offered wines from California and Australia made from the same grapes, I would take the latter every time, even when they age. The fruit just seems to stick around longer!
There are some dry red wines that I enjoy when they are older. The big ones form the northern and southern Rhone (Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas, respectively), as well as the “two B’s from Piedmont (Barolo and Barbaresco) and a few Chianti Classico Riservas, Interestingly, none of those show their wood even when older – the fruit is so powerful, you end up with complexity without “slivers”. I also enjoy Shirazes from Australia and Cabs from California as they age because – as I mentioned earlier – there seems to be more fruit and it sticks around longer.
But enough about me – what should you do when it comes to aging, or drinking, old wine?
Well, the best advice I have is taste some before you invest in more than a few bottles. Many liquor and wine stores carry older versions of some wines – you can often find 6 – 10 year old wines. They may be pricey, but better to buy one now and find out if you like it, rather than start collecting and then find in ten years that you don’t like what you end up with!
So, like so many times before, this isn’t a case of “good vs bad”. Instead, it’s a matter of taste. Find out if you like older wines. If you do, feel free to buy them young – and cheaper – and keep them a while. But if you don’t, there is lots of great wine out there that doesn’t need any longer than the trip from the store back to your home!