The Wine Lover’s Dilemma: drink now or later?
Have you ever looked through your wine collection searching for the perfect wine to have with a meal, when you come across a special bottle which makes you stop and wonder whether you should open this bottle now, or wait because it will be better in a few years? Anyone who thinks seriously about wine faces this dilemma all the time.
One of wine's most magical properties is its ability to not only survive but improve with long-term aging. At the same time, this is one of its most frustrating qualities. No one wants to drink a wine before its time (“Infanticide!”), but it’s a worse feeling drinking a bottle that would have been much better a few years ago. I’d like to share a few tips and tools for evaluating the ageability of wines, by considering which wines age best, and why. To make this potentially overwhelming topic more manageable, our discussion will be confined to red wines thus ignoring whites. And in an upcoming article, I'll discuss the age-worthiness of Montemaggiore wines in particular.
Assessing your preference
Our first step is to understand the properties of a young wine versus an older wine, and assess which end of the scale you prefer.
|Color||Violet-Red||Red-orange, especially on the edges|
|More Opaque||More transparent|
|Aroma/Flavor||Fresh Fruit||Stewed or dried fruit|
|Discrete Flavors||Integrated flavors, more “wine-like”|
|Grape Aromas||Subtle, nuanced, more complex aromas|
|Often more earthy (leather, tar, tobacco)|
|Texture||Bold, Assertive||Softer, smoother, mellower, richer|
Time in the bottle can change a wine's color, aromas, flavors and texture in pretty amazing ways, making the wine far more complex, elegant and desirable than when it was first bottled. But some people prefer younger wines because they enjoy the bold fruit aromas—and embracing your personal preference is very important. If you like more fruit-forward wines, you should always err on the side of drinking wines a bit younger. There’s no use worrying about aging wines if you really prefer younger ones!
Evaluating an unopened bottle
So now that you’ve determined your preferences, let’s get back to the original question as to whether you should open this particular bottle now. The label on the wine bottle holds three major pieces of information that can help you decide:
- Varietal: Some varietals are more age-worthy than others, typically based on their tannin content. Varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon (e.g., Bordeaux), Nebbiolo (Barolo), Syrah, Tempranillo (Rioja), and Tannat have significant tannins that act as a preservative and give the wine a structural backbone. Tannin content is not, however, the only indicator. Pinot Noir is a prime example of a varietal that doesn’t typically have a lot of tannin, but its acidity and intensity give it the ingredients for ageability.
- Vineyard & Winery: Knowing the wines from a particular producer and the vineyard/region from which the grapes are sourced is perhaps the best indicator of ageability—but this requires a breadth knowledge. A particular wine or winery’s track record from previous vintages is very helpful. Understanding the vinification methods of that particular winery, and knowing whether they are trying to make an ageable wine is important (the vast majority of wines are meant to be drunk young). Montemaggiore, for example, makes wine for aging up to 15 years after vintage. Our mountainside vineyards with their lean soils produce wines with significant tannins supporting the aging process.
- Vintage: Wines from a very good vintage are typically more age-worthy. The better the weather conditions in a particular year, the more likely the wines from that vintage will have a good balance of fruit, acids, and tannins, and therefore the potential to age longer. For example, the vintages of 2004 and 2007 were excellent for reds in northern California, thus wines from those vintages are typically more ageable. If you are not familiar with the vintages and regions, you could refer to a vintage chart published by one of the wine magazines like Wine Enthusiast or Wine Spectator (note that vintage charts are notoriously general and may not reflect specific conditions in sub-regions).
Three minor things could also influence the aging potential of a wine:
- Storage: Even the best made wines from the best vintages will not age well if they are improperly stored. Being subjected to changes in heat and light will definitely shorten the life of a bottle of wine.
- Bottle format: Larger bottles (e.g., 1.5 liters) age more slowly than standard format bottles (750ml). The small format bottles (e.g., 375ml) age the quickest because there is more air and oxygen in the neck of the bottle relative to the amount of wine. The more oxygen that a wine is exposed to, the faster it will age over time.
- Ullage: The distance between the bottom of the cork and the top of the liquid level in the bottle is an indicator of the amount of oxygen present in the bottle, which in turn will greatly influence the aging of the wine. If you see a bottle with less fill, or more ullage, this probably means the bottle should be drunk quickly.
Appraising the wine in the glass
Once you’ve opened a bottle, how do you know if it’s still got life left in it? If you have more of that same wine in your collection, should you drink all those other bottles quickly or should you hang on to them for a few more years? When assessing the aging potential of a wine in the glass in front of you, you should look for the presence of “fuel” for the aging process (fruit and tannin) and preservatives against the aging process (acid). These three core elements provide a wine with what it needs to evolve beautifully, but also diminish over time.
Age-worthy wines possess a combination of structure, balance, flavor and intensity. A wine high in tannin with a strong core of fruit will age significantly longer than one with little tannin and lighter fruitiness. But all the fruit and tannin in the world is no good if the wine has no acidity to keep it fresh tasting over the long haul. Conversely, a combination of high tannin content and high acidity might make the wine live forever but never become drinkable. So don’t be fooled! If a wine is unbalanced and unappealing when young, it’s never going to magically turn into a balanced and delicious older wine.
A wine can be considered “over the hill” or past its prime when it tastes faded and dried out. It might be flabby with low acidity—or perhaps even turned to vinegar. Those are all signs that you should have drunk the wine earlier.
Tasting an open bottle over a few hours or even a few days can also help you evaluate aging potential. Most age-worthy wines not only survive overnight without becoming a lesser experience, but may even improve. Some may say this proves nothing because the wine is being subjecting to oxidative aging whereas in the bottle, it would be aged under low-oxygen conditions. But we’ve found this to be a reasonable indicator most of the time.
So how do the experts do it? Wine critics and winemakers primarily rely on knowing the track record of prior vintages from a particular vineyard (and producer). They correlate the fruit, tannin, and acid of the wine they are currently tasting with the similar vintages they’ve tasted in the past in order to determine ageability. Having said all this, this is very difficult—and even “experts” get it wrong sometimes.
Understanding the aging process
No technical analysis can predict how long a wine can age, but understanding what is happening as a wine sits in the bottle can inform your decision to drink or wait. Wine is an extremely complex combination of chemical compounds that change over time as they interact with each other and their environment. Small amounts of oxygen pass through the natural cork (assuming no synthetic cork or screw caps), which causes subtle reactions in the wine—occurring alongside other long-term non-oxidative reactions between the existing compounds in the wine. As these reactions occur, wine looses its fruit aromas, gains a smoother texture, and changes in color. I’ll try to explain why, without getting too technical... well, perhaps a little technical.
As wine ages, it’s color changes to a brick red or brown due to oxygen exposure, just like a cut apple will turn brown. Wines with higher acidity tend to turn brown less rapidly, thus are better candidates for aging (just as the acid from lemon juice prevents a cut apple from browning). During aging, the chemical compounds in wine change shape thus reflect light differently. The blue hues are diminished and the yellow hue increases in intensity, which explains the shift in color from violet-red to red-orange.
Significant changes in wine aroma also occur during aging, primarily due to the esters responsible for fruity aromas. Esters are initially formed during fermentation, but are generally not stable. During aging, the esters are bound up and hydrolyzed thus the wine’s fresh and fruity aromas are lost. Although fruit aromas diminish over time, varietal aromas are retained and may even become more prominent. Meanwhile new esters and aromas are being formed all the time. Above all, a well aged wine gains a harmonious and pleasing fragrance, with an integration of all aromas and flavors.
With proper aging, a wine’s texture becomes mellower and smoother, giving the wine a much richer mouth feel. The improved texture reflects a reduction of astringency and acidity due to the polymerization of phenolic compounds such as tannins. Tannins come from the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes and even from the barrels in which wines are matured. A young wine with significant tannin can be both bitter (short tannin chains) and astringent (longer tannin chains). As a wine ages, many phenols polymerize (create longer chains) and some break up. Many of these changes are permanent, but some are ephemeral. Some polymerization is aided by oxygen, but others are non-oxidative. But with further polymerization, the molecules become too large, and finally precipitate out. This leads to a reduction in phenolic compounds and also in astringency resulting in a smoother, mellower, richer texture.
You might find a sediment or precipitate at the bottom of an older bottle of wine. This harmless precipitate is a combination of pigment, tartrates (including acid), and tannins—which explains why wine changes its color, gains a smoother texture, and looses some acidity. Is this all making sense now?
When in doubt, drink it now! It’s much better to drink wine a bit too early than too late. The wine probably still tastes great even if it is a bit young, and if you really like it perhaps you can still get more bottles to enjoy in a few years. If you drink a wine that’s “over the hill” there is little enjoyment to be gained—and what’s really depressing is all those other bottles of that same wine that you should have opened earlier.
Fancy toys like Coravin (right) can extract wine from a bottle without removing the cork through pressurized argon (an inert gas that doesn’t react with wine). I use the Coravin to taste some of the older bottles in our collection and decide whether to drink them now. Long-term exposure to argon is a bit of an unknown, so beware.
Lastly, if you’d like to learn more about wine aging, the best thing to do is purchase a 12-bottle case of a wine that you like and drink it slowly. Take 12 little pieces of masking tape, labelling them with successive dates every six months for the next six years. Store a small spiral bound notebook with the wines in order to record your impressions as you drink each bottle. Open a bottle on the appropriate date and compare your past impressions of that same wine. (Pssst: this also makes a great wedding gift!)