By Michael Meagher
It is only a recent development that we can ask the questions of why and how we should age wine. As little as 400 years ago (wine dates back at least 6,000-8,000 years, so 400 years is pretty recent history) wine moved on a relatively quick journey from grape juice to wine to vinegar since storage vessels were usually wooden barrels or poorly sealed containers that allowed large amounts of oxygen to come into contact with the wine. It was only with the development of glass bottles and cork closures, which protected the juice from rapid deterioration, that consideration of whether a wine is age-worthy entered a consumer’s mind. While there certainly are some wines out there that are designed for consumption as soon as possible, a good portion of wines will be consumed many months or even years before they reach their peak. The truth is that most people don’t see wine as a living, breathing, evolving beverage that usually will benefit from a bit of patience before you pull the cork.
So why age wine? One rationale in favor of ageing wine points toward the fact that in the process of creating what we know as wine, the juice goes through a lot of “growing pains” in becoming what we are familiar with. Fermentation is a fairly violent process with naturally occurring heat, carbon dioxide, sulfur, and all sorts of other chemical changes, and if it’s a red wine then there is extraction of anthocyanins, polyphenols and tannins from extended skin contact.
If the wine sees time in a barrel, then there are more additions and changes to the structure of the juice with tannins, vanillin and slight oxidation taking place. By the time the wine reaches the bottle, it’s gone through huge amount of change. For those who are skilled in the kitchen and have made a soup or stew, there’s the adage that it’s always better the second day, and this holds true to wine. It takes a while for the ingredients in a wine to mesh and aging a wine will give it the necessary time to reach that optimal state.
Now not every wine needs the same amount of time to age and show more integration of its components. Only a few varietals are ready to drink after only a few months in bottle, so winemakers will often hold wine back from release to avoid premature consumption. This is because of one of the great qualities of wine, its ability to develop secondary characteristics after years of bottle aging.
Wine in its youth will show primary flavors of fruit, which makes sense since it’s made from fruit. However, as a wine develops, a lot of those chemicals that are floating around in the bottle have a chance to either bind together or bind with some of the small amounts of oxygen the cork allows to enter the bottle. This will cause development of secondary aromas like tobacco, mushrooms, dried herbs, savory meatiness, and even what is affectionately referred to as “barnyard”.
Perhaps the best reason to age wine is for the fun experience of seeing it change and evolve over time. Instead of buying just one bottle, buy four bottles, (it doesn’t have to be ultra premium juice) and open them over the span of a year or two. Take some notes on the aromas and flavors each time you pull the cork and compare them from each bottle. The differences might be subtle, or they might be drastic, but they will give you a good illustration about the nuances and potential of a bottle to improve with age. Plus, it’s kind of fun, which is what wine is supposed to be all about.
Michael is a Master Sommelier Candidate is in the process of completing his Diploma of Wine Studies from the WSET. Being a former collegiate athlete, he is now focusing that competitive spirit on the wine world. He won the 2010 Chaine de Rotisseurs Best Young Sommelier competition, finished third at TOP|SOMM The US Sommelier Championships. He also serves as Chairman of the Boston Sommelier Society and owner of the beverage consulting company, Sommelier On-Demand.