I was surprised to see a wine column recently where the writer stated that “almost all red wines can benefit from up to 5 years of aging.” That was one statement I couldn’t resist…and hence this blog!
But even before I thought about writing, my memory drifted back to an actual event that dealt with this very same proposition. Years ago, a friend of wine – a decent “wino” in his own right, with his own medium sized cellar – had been invited over for dinner at a new acquaintance’s house. He had heard that the man was interested in wine and, sure enough, it didn’t take long before he asked my friend if he wanted to see his wine cellar. Excited, my friend followed him downstairs.
They reached a locked door and the owner carefully slipped the key into the hole. After turning it, he opened the door, turned on the light and gestured for my friend to follow him inside. Once there, the owner spread his arms proudly and said “here they are!”.
My friend looked around, at first impressed by the rows of wooden shelves, filled from floor to ceiling with wine. But then, when he had a closer look, he realized they were all from Chile – and in the $10 – $12 range. Not only that, many of them were over 5 – 10 years old. My friend, being a good guy, didn’t have the heart to tell the owner that most of the whites were probably close to being oxidized and the reds mostly dried out (as 99.9% of any wines in that price category will be after 5 or more years).
The moral of this story – and subject of this blog post – is that while any wine can keep for 6 months to a year, the vast majority of wines are made to be consumed as soon as you bring them home. In fact, if have seen numbers as high as 95%! Will they last longer? Perhaps. But will they get any better? The frank answer is…no!
The other key part of this post is to point out that even the 5% of wines (overwhelmingly red) that can be cellared end up tasting quite a bit different over time. And note that I said different – not necessarily better!
Many times I have seen the look on people’s faces when they taste a “mature” wine for the first time. At first it is quizzical, and then – usually – disappointed. That’s because as a wine ages, the fruit slowly fades and is overtaken by secondary aromas and flavours that include herbs and wood. And for someone used to lots of ripe fruit, that can be quite a shock.
For my tastes, the wines from France’s northern Rhone (Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas), southern Rhone (Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas) and Piedmont in Italy (Barolo, Barbaresco) are the best for aging, because they still retain much of their fruit and don’t get overtaken by the wood. Personally, I don’t like older Bordeaux for that very reason, and the same goes for most Burgundy as well. California and Australia can produce some wines which I like as they get older, but even I miss the preponderance of fruit when they were young.
How can you tell if you should age the wine you buy? Well, first, try and find an older version of that wine and see if you like it. If you don’t, there is no point in aging it. If you do like it, then find a wine reviewer you trust and age based on their recommendations. Finally, buy more than one bottle of each wine. That allows you to try the wine earlier and more than once. There I nothing worse than having one bottle of what you thought was a special wine, opening it, and finding it is dried out or – worse – gone off.
So as to the question “to age or not to age”? I think the answer is – don’t ask it! Instead, first find out if you like wine when it is older. If you do, then invest in a few bottles and go from there. But if you don’t, then don’t waste your money. Buy the wine you like now, and drink it!