It’s the tenth anniversary of your honeymoon. You and your spouse decide to open that bottle of wine you promised to keep cellared until today. It’s your favorite wine, and you can’t wait to see how different it’s become after years of maturing. But when you take the first sip, you realize that it doesn’t just taste different—it tastes old, and not in a good way.
What went wrong? Was it stored incorrectly? Is your cellar not cold enough? Bad yeast?
In reality, it’s more likely that you tried to age the wrong wine. Many wine lovers enjoy talking about collecting and aging wine because drinking wine from a different time has a romantic allure, allowing the drinker to dwell in nostalgia and re-visit an exceptional wine years later. Drinking a well-aged wine can provide a taste, a texture, and an experience that you otherwise may not find in a younger wine.
The problem is, most wines are not meant to be aged. In fact, most wines are designed to be consumed young, even the ones that do age well. But how do you determine whether a wine can be aged? There are a few factors to consider: the acidity of the wine, alcohol levels, sugar content, and, perhaps most importantly, the amount of tannin in the wine.
Tannins are a group of short-chain molecules that come from grape stems, seeds, and skins. Produced by the plant as a defensive compound, tannins are responsible for the bitterness and astringency in a wine. As time passes, these tannin molecules bind to each other and to other compounds in the wine. Tannins that polymerize will sink to the bottom as sediment, while others work to prevent aromatic chemicals from evaporating. The result is a wine that tastes smoother and more complex as tannins fall away and allow new flavors to develop while preserving old ones.
Red wines contain a higher number of tannins, so they tend to be better candidates for aging compared to lighter wines, though some of the more complex white wines and dessert wines—with higher acidity and sugar content—can mature gracefully as well. In any case, a unique balance of tannins, sugars, and acids is needed for a wine to change into the deep, complex, and mysterious beverage coveted by those who choose to age their wine. It is also what makes good “agers” so rare and elusive.
That being said, there are a few general guidelines that can help you choose an appropriate wine to age.
1. Sweeter, more acidic wines can last longer through the aging process
2. Fortified wines tend to stay well-preserved for longer periods of time, allowing new flavor profiles to develop without going bad
3. Wines made from high-quality grapes grown in climates with long, warm summers and mild winters are more likely to age well
4. Wines under $10 cannot be aged – drink those immediately
We also recommend consulting your local store clerk, a sommelier, or even the winemakers themselves to determine whether a particular wine is suitable for aging. Investing in a wine cellar that can keep your wines at a stable 12.7 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) will also help to prolong the shelf life of your wine.
And lastly, when in doubt, drink it young. Unless you have a truly outstanding bottle of wine in your hands that is begging and deserves to be aged, your wine is meant to be opened and enjoyed.