Why do some wines age well and others don't?
No exact science is used to determine whether a bottle of wine has the ability to age or not. Ninety percent of worldwide wine production is made for consumption within one year of being bottled. Only ten percent of all wines that are produced worldwide will benefit from further aging, and only 1% of these wines will age successfully for more than five years.
Wines change as they age, but the majority of them do not improve, in fact, the longer they age the greater the degradation of the wine quality which can lead to them being undrinkable.
Factors that determine aging potential
Many of the grapes that are used to make “ready-consumption wines” are of excellent quality, but these grapes do not age well.
Wines that are made for consumption within the first year after bottling, (90%) are designed to taste pleasant as soon as they are bottled. A perfect example of a fast-production wine is the famous Beaujolais Nouveau wines from France that are specifically designed for quick drinking (a mere 6-8 weeks after harvest).
Color of the wine and the grapes that are used to make it. Rosé and white wines such as a sweet white Zinfandel or a Pinot Grigio or a Muscadet are easy-drinking wines specifically designed for instant consumption as soon as they are made as they do not have the balance and complexity required to age.
White wines and rosé wines that are made using the “saignée” method do not ferment on the skins which reduce the concentration of tannins and acids in the wine thus shortening their aging potential as they lack the freshness and balance needed to age. These wines often go “flat” or bad after a short period of time.
Grapes that have high levels of water when harvested do not age well.
The method of production used is often very machine intensive with emphasis on keeping costs low and getting the wine out onto the market as quickly as possible with minimum storage (which is costly) time. In some instances, the wine is out in distribution as little as three months after the grapes have been pressed.
Price tag - A good indicator that a wine is ready to drink straight from the shelf. As a general rule, the lower the price, the lower the aging potential.
Wines with high levels of acidity such as Pinot Grigio.
The alcohol level is volatile and wines with high levels of alcohol tend to make still wines age very quickly. An exception to this rule is fortified wines which have an ABV between 17-20%.
Taste - Wines (red, white, and rosé) are often light and fruity in composition.
Storage container (ie Bag in a box) - the storage container plays a very important role in the conservation of the wine. If you see a wine that is packaged in a plastic bottle or a bag in a box then it is absolutely correct to assume that this wine is not designed to last long. Wine packaging can be very expensive so being able to reduce costs is beneficial to the winemaker.
It is important to understand that just because a wine has been made for immediate consumption, this in no way indicates that it is of any lesser quality than a wine that has been designed to age.
What are the traits that help a wine to age successfully?
The wine is specifically made for aging:
Fortified Wines - Port, Sherry, Madeira
Sweet Wines - Sauternes, Riesling, Late Harvest, Tokaji
Sparkling wines made using the Champenoise Method
Red and white dry still wines are made from grapes that have aging potential.
Wines that are designed for aging often do not taste that good in the first few years because they are still undergoing structural changes in the tannins, acids, alcohol levels, and sugars therefore are unbalanced. Once they have aged for a few years, the wines will begin to display the characteristics that the winemaker has envisioned as being the true expression of the final wine.
Grapes that are used to make the wine - the quality of the fruit more than the variety of the grapes plays a significant factor in whether it has the possibility to age or not.
|Rioja Blanca (Viura)||White|
Acidity levels - acidity levels are very important and help the wine to maintain a freshness which is essential for it to stay vibrant and preserves its lively flavors as it ages through the years.
Tannin concentration - wines that have a big concentration and good balance of tannins are perfect for long-term aging.
A wine with an ABV of 13.5% or less is ideal for wines that are made for long-term aging.
Residual sugar has an anti-oxidant effect which helps the wine to “live” longer. As we know oxidation is one of the greatest enemies of wine and is the cause of its death. Though they are often overlooked, sweet, sparkling, and fortified wines age exceptionally well due to their high sugar content.
Producer/Winemaker - a great producer works to create wines that will go the distance and use techniques to ensure they will age successfully. The winemaker determines the final destiny of the wine that he or she makes. As the saying goes “Great vintages produce great wines but a great winemaker can make great wines regardless of the vintage conditions.”
Wines (1% of total worldwide production) that are made specifically for aging for five years or more are packaged (very expensive) in top-end bottles and are sealed with natural corks that have a spongy flexibility which help keep the wine well-sealed and oxygen free for an extended period of time. The aging bottles of wine are carefully stored in optimal conditions with the least amount of disruption (movement), with strict control of the temperature and humidity levels as well as little or no light exposure.
|Wine type||Aging Potential|
|Cheap White||12 months|
|Cheap Red||16 months|
|Medium Priced White||2 years|
|Medium Priced Red||4 years|
|Fine White Wine||10+ years|
|Fine Red Wine||20+ years|
|Sweet Wines||50+ years|
|Fine Champagne||60 + years|
|Fortified Wines and Port||Undetermined
can last up to 200+ years
We must remember that as much as we find pleasure in drinking wine, a winery is a business and in order to be successful, the sale of wines for immediate consumption has a bigger short term financial reward. Making wines for aging is often a long and costly process and though in the long term, the premium wines may command a hefty price, in the short term their production reaps less financial rewards for the winery.
The information provided in this article is the general guidelines that can be followed when choosing between a ready-to-drink wine or one that has aging potential. Just because a wine is made for aging, this does not mean that the process will be successful (there is nothing more disheartening than opening a bottle of wine that has been kept for a special occasion only to discover that is undrinkable. Wine defects that cause the wine to go “off” are often a result of bottle shock, (wine becomes ill during the bottling process due to unexpected exposure to oxygen), cork taint, or storing the wine incorrectly. Wine is delicate and fine wines in particular must be treated with respect and care if you want them to reach their full aging potential.
Just because a wine is not made for aging does not mean that it is of inferior quality. Though aging changes wine, it does not necessarily improve or worsen it. Simply put, if a young wine is not complex, it will not gain complexity with age.
The world of wine is large and full of surprises, but as you become more of a wine aficionado, your newfound knowledge will guide you in the right direction so that you can choose your perfect bottle of wine, whether it be for tonight’s dinner or one in ten years. And if in doubt, do not hesitate to ask a wine professional for their assistance, that is what they are here for and they will be delighted to guide you on the right path in your wine journey.