How Well Do Wines Hold Up with Time?

Wine Enthusiast Magazine, February 2018

Wine Enthusiast Magazine, February 2018

Last time we looked at the factors that make a wine more capable of bottle aging. And, somewhat surprisingly, there are very few wines that actually hold up well in the bottle, even with proper storage.  So then, what wines do hold up?

The results reported in Wine Enthusiast's 2018 Vintage chart (February 2018) are very revealing. As you might expect, wines from the Bordeaux region of France can hold up very well. And, most of the wines from Bordeaux are still currently at their peak dating back to 1998.  Twenty years!  But beyond that, the vintage guide suggests that wines before 1998 are likely in decline and may be undrinkable.

Then there are the California wines.  Again, as you might expect, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon's are holding up well back to 1994. But, the real surprises come with other wines that just aren't as age-able.  For instance, the Napa and Sonoma Zinfandel's are only showing good back to 2007. Russian River Pinot Noir is showing good back to 2007, while a Syrah from the Central Coast of California is only holding up back to 2010.

So, the key point to remember is that only select wines are really age-worth while most others have a relatively short time that they remain drinkable. This is a lesson that a lot of us learn the hard way. We hold on to really nice wines and wait and wait for that special occasion to open them.  But, as I recently learned, I held some too long. And I'll share that story next time. Until then, Cheers!

The Factors that Make a Wine More Capable of Bottle Aging


We've now worked our way through how a wine gets its flavor - from the grape, the skins, seeds and stems, fermentation, barrel aging and last time we touched on bottle aging. There we learned that most wines are not meant for long-term bottle aging. But, what does make a bottle of wine age worthy?

It may seem obvious, but the color and the type of grape are very important. Red wines are best at bottle aging because of their natural tannin from the grape skin, seeds and stem as well as from barrel aging. This is most common in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.  White wines generally don't age well and should be consumed young.

The vintage, or the year the grapes were grown, can significantly affect a wine's ability to age well. The balance of tannin and acid in a particular year may lend the resulting wine to better aging prospects.

Where the wine is from can also affect its ability to age. There are key regions, such as Bordeaux France and Napa California that produce very age-worthy grapes.

And finally, storage conditions are also key. Wines must be stored in cool conditions (~58 degrees F) and away from light.  Even a great wine will quickly be damaged by heat and light.

Next time, we'll take a look at specific regions and wines for their age worthiness. You may be surprised by some of the guidelines. Until then, Cheers!


Wine Flavors from Aging in the Bottle

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As we continue exploring wine flavors and where they come from, let's take a step back to last time.

As was noted, barrel aging can impart many wonderful flavors to wine. Additionally, barrel aging imparts tannin. And, tannin is very important to a wine’s ability to age in the bottle.

But, not all wines are meant to be bottle aged. In fact, most are meant to be consumed immediately. Only a small percent of the world's wines are made to be aged.

As a wine ages in the bottle, it is important that it be kept in a cool environment (~58 degrees F) and kept away from sunlight. Both warm temperatures and light can quickly damage a wine.

So, if a wine is age-worthy, its flavor will indeed change in the bottle over time. The tannin will become softer (less astringent) making the wine have a smoother mouthfeel. The fruit flavors will also soften. And, over time, the color will change from red and will take on an orange hue. This all results in a wonderful wine experience.

But, aging a wine in the bottle is not always for the better. A favorite line that I read some time ago was "The cellar (or wine refrigerator) is not a hospital; it will not make a bad wine get better."  And, that is so true. You must ensure you are aging good wines.

One simple rule is if a wine does not naturally have tannin from the fruit and does not get any appreciable tannin from oak aging, it's not going to be age worthy. And, once it has gotten beyond three to five years old, it likely will have oxidized and be beyond its prime period for drinking.

So, what other factors make a wine age worthy?  We'll get into that next time. Until then, Cheers!

Wine Flavors from Barrel Aging - Part 2

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Last time we learned that aging wine in barrels can impart flavors ranging from none, in older 'neutral' barrels, to subtle hints of vanilla, or bolder flavors of chocolate and smokiness, depending on the barrels age and the degree to which its inside was toasted.

But, barrel aging can also affect a wine’s flavor in a very different way. And, that has to do with a very important component of air, namely oxygen.

Originally, wood barrels were used as a means of transporting wines over great distances. It was somewhat accidentally discovered during this transportation process, that the longer the wine was inside the barrels, the more the wines would change in character - in a positive way.  

This was partially due to the wine’s flavor being directly affected by long-term contact with the wood’s surface.  But, it was also discovered that wood, by its very nature, allows microscopic amounts of air to pass through the barrel and to the wine inside. This minimal exposure of wine to oxygen was found to soften the fruit flavors of the wines and create other flavor notes.

This, quite accidentally, began the practice of aging wine in wood barrels, notably oak.  Today, red wines will typically see a minimum of one to two years of aging in oak barrels before being bottled.

And, we’ll take a look at bottle aging next time. Until then,  Cheers!



Wine Flavors from Aging


We've been exploring where wine gets it flavor from starting with the star of show, the juice of the grapes, then learning how the grape skins, seeds and stems can affect the finished flavor and we also looked at how the fermentation process can affect flavor. So, now it's on to the aging process and how it can affect a wine's flavor.

Let's start with the aging process before the wine goes into the bottle (aging in the bottle is an entirely separate subject for another time). 

At the winery, once the wine is fermented, it is typically aged in stainless tanks or oak barrels. With respect to stainless tanks, they don't add anything to the final flavor of wine. So, that was easy. But, oak barrels are an entirely different story.  Barrels can affect a wine's flavor in a couple different ways.

First, barrels can impart wood-like flavors. But, wine makers really don't want to make wine that tastes like trees or tree sap. So, one of the things they do is to 'toast' the inside of the barrel (i.e., subject it to an open flame to provide a char to the wood). And, this is done to varying degrees. A barrel that is lightly toasted will add subtle hints of flavor. A medium toasted barrel will start to add vanilla or caramel flavors to the wine and heavily toasted barrels will impart stronger flavors of smoke, coffee and chocolate. 

Now, these flavors are well suited to some red wines but typically not for white wines. So, most red wines spend some time aging in oak barrels while white wines typically don't.  The exceptions are generally Chardonnays that will, with oak aging, take on those butterscotch, vanilla and toast flavors. Fumé Blanc is another oak-aged white wine. It's simply Sauvignon Blanc that's been oaked aged.

And, finally, an oak barrel can actually become 'neutral' with time and impart no flavor. This typically occurs after a new oak barrel has been used three or four times.  It's still a good vessel for aging, but just doesn't affect its flavor.

The other way that oak barrels affect a wine's flavor comes from their naturally porous nature. But, I'll leave that for next time. Until then, Cheers!