Aging wine is nearly as ubiquitous with the drink as brewing your coffee with freshly roasted beans. However, the science behind aging wine is a little more complex than ‘set it and forget it’.
The aging aspect of wine drinking is often daunting for first-time drinkers who are already attempting to navigate elements like terroir, vintage, origin, varietal, and fermentation.
First things first, the kind of wine you buy heavily affects whether or not you should age it. Likewise, your personal tastes may not favor a few extra years on the vintage date.
Does wine taste better with age? The answer is: maybe! We’ll take a look at the why, how, and what of aging wine so you can be a more discerning drinker.
How Does Aging Affect the Taste of Wine?
Despite the simple ingredients needed to make a glass of red, there are several compounds and chemicals brimming beneath the surface.
Defining Phenolic Compounds
Think of chemicals like an umbrella. You have broader terms used to describe the basic chemical structure, then more specific terms that determine the chemical’s impact on flavor, aroma, and so on.
Phenolic compounds refer to plant-based chemicals that create different types of sugar and acid. Depending on the percentage of these phenolic compounds in your drink, you’ll have wildly different tasting experiences.
Below are the two most common phenolic compounds you’ll encounter while drinking wine.
One of the best-known phenolic compounds is tannins. This chemical structure contributes to the dry, tight texture of certain wines. Similarly, a high tannin count tends to create more bitter and sharp flavors.
When you hear a wine as being ‘high in tannins’, you have a starting point on what kind of flavor and mouthfeel you’re going to get.
Tannins also work to preserve the structure of the wine, preventing it from deteriorating and losing its flavor over time.
“What is wine acidity?”, you might be asking. Describing acidity is nearly as common as describing mouthfeel, after all!
The three types of acid you’ll encounter in wine are tartaric acid, malic acid, and citric acid (the latter of which is common in lemonade and juices).
A wine that’s high in acidity often tastes tart, bright, and zesty. Just like tannins, acidity also functions as a natural preservative.
The alcohol content of your wine is yet another way to determine its aging potential. This phenomenon is due to how alcohol naturally kills bacteria and mold.
Storing your wine correctly will go a long way in protecting its potential.
Wine should not be kept anywhere too hot or too cold. Ideally, you should store your wines around fifty-five degrees away from sunlight.
Why Does Wine Taste Better With Age?
Let’s first define what ‘better’ means in the world of wine. Wine is a personal journey that depends on your preferences. What might be better for one person could be undrinkable to another!
It’s best to state that aged wine often tastes more complex and subtle. Certain flavors that aren’t possible with newer vintages tend to become more pronounced with age.
For example, a new Pinot Noir may taste sweeter, leaning toward soft red berries and a silky mouthfeel. A more aged Pinot Noir (think around five years) may reveal earthy flavor and subtle baking spice flavor notes.
Which Wines Age the Best?
Thinking of holding off on a few of your wine bottles? Perhaps you want to shell out a little extra cash for an older vintage.
Let’s take a look at which wines are known for aging the most gracefully.
The one, the only. Cabernet Sauvignon is legendary for its aging potential, boasting both a high tannin count and hefty acidity. This double whammy of natural preservatives means Cabernet Sauvignon can be stored for at least ten years.
That said, some bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon have been aged for a few decades straight. If you can get your hands on an aged bottle, expect to enjoy rustic flavors of vanilla, wood, and tobacco leaf.
Following close behind, Malbec is a fantastically balanced wine with a rich flavor, a somewhat higher tannin count, and juicy acidity. In fact, you may find Malbec more appealing for having a lower price point than similarly aged Cabernet Sauvignon.
Malbecs are best aged for seven to ten years before consumption. Expect an aged bottle of Malbec to bring out smoky or floral notes.
If Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are a touch too strong flavor-wise, consider the relatively more gentle Pinot Noir.
Most wine aficionados will recommend aging a single-origin Pinot Noir for fifteen to twenty years. If you can’t wait that long, consider shelling out extra for an already aged bottle.
Sangiovese is an Italian grape varietal that tends to bloom in just four to five years.
If you want to age your Sangiovese a little longer, these wines fare well after ten to twelve years. Aged Sangiovese is an experience to behold, creating aromas of potpourri and tea leaves as well as more earthy flavors.
This Spanish grape varietal responds well to oak aging due to its high tannin count and tendency toward woody, oaky flavors.
In fact, if you’re not predisposed to more bitter or earthy flavor notes, aged Tempranillo tends to be softer than its fresher counterparts.
Should You Age Your Wine?
Some wine drinkers would rather enjoy their vintage as soon as possible. Likewise, the impact of aging on wine may taste unpleasant depending on your palate.
Below are a few reasons why you should age your wine:
You Don’t Drink Wine Often
Do you tend to bust out wine once in a while? If you tend to wait several months to a year in-between drinking wine, aging your bottle will come naturally.
Just make sure to put a note on your phone so you don’t forget to pull the bottle out in time!
Saving Your Wine For a Special Occasion
Similar to the above point, aging your wine is easy to do when you refuse to open your bottle outside of a special occasion.
Double this if your special day only comes around once in a lifetime, such as a ten-year anniversary or getting your Ph.D.
You Want to Explore Different Aromas, Flavours, and Mouthfeel
If you’re invested in exploring all the different angles a single grape varietal can give you, you definitely want to age your wine. A Sangiovese that’s only a year old will taste quite different from a Sangiovese with a decade to its name.
Reasons You Would Not Want to Age Wine
Aged Flavours Might Not Be Appealing
A simple fact of aging wine is you may not like what the bottle turns into five years later. Common flavor notes that tend to appear with age in red wine include (but aren’t limited to) peppery flavors, earthy mushrooms, gravel, flowers, and leather.
Some drinkers adore the nuanced medley that grows over time. Others may find these flavors and scents rather off-putting.
You Only Live Once
Do you want to wait twenty years before opening that delicious bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon? If the answer is no, open your wine after purchase and call it a day.
Does Wine Get Better With Age?
Not all wines benefit from aging. Red wines generally fare well in the aging process due to their higher levels of tannins, alcohol, and acidity, all of which act as preservatives.
Over time, these preservatives allow subtle changes to happen in the bottle that results in complex, nuanced flavors.
That said, even red wines have some limits! Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Sangiovese age well, while gentle wines like Merlot are best consumed earlier.
Whether or not you want to age your wine is up to you. As long as you’re enjoying your journey, there’s no way to drink wine incorrectly!
Curious to know more about the rich world of red wine? We dive into the history of Malbec, Merlot, and much more.