Will you still drink me, will you still like me, when I’m really old?
A generation ago, purchasers of quality wines were expected to cellar them for some years before the wines became drinkable. These days, most wines are made so that any required aging takes place during the trip from the store to your table. But, even today, some are built to benefit from ageing time to mellow and thus more fully express their aromas and flavours.
How can you tell if a given wine will endure, and even improve, with age? A bad guess one way leads to drinking an inky, mouth-puckering glass of alcoholised grape juice long before it is enjoyable. A bad guess the other way leads to opening a treasured bottle only to find that it has degenerated into an acidic, flavorless swill unfit even for regifting to your mother-in-law. Either way, we suffer disappointment and wasted money.
Predicting a young wine’s aging potential is one of the most difficult tasks facing a wine expert, let alone the average consumer. Making it more complicated is the fact that how quickly a wine matures depends a great deal on the conditions of storage. However, here are a few questions to ask yourself that should point you in the right direction. You can answer these by tasting the wine critically for its five basic flavour components: fruit, acid, sweetness, tannins, and alcohol.
- Most importantly, is the wine starting out with enough flavour (good-tasting fruit extract) to make ageing worthwhile? After all, if you don’t enjoy his/her company on the first date, it is unlikely that marriage will improve the relationship.
If your bottle does possess enough good fruit essence that possible future consumption seems desirable, then you can consider whether it also has one (or preferably more) of the following preservative substances.
- Just as vinegar preserves pickles, acid can help preserve wines. Wine naturally contains several acids, notable tartaric, malic and lactic, the levels of which slowly decline with age. Too much acidity is obviously unpalatable, but too little leaves wine vulnerable to early deterioration.
- Sugar preserves such things as jams and the trust funds of dentists’ children and also helps preserve wines. Ice wines and other late harvest “stickies” usually last a long time, and their sugar content (with balancing acidity in good examples) is a major reason for that. Of course, sugar levels are not relevant to dry wines.
- Just as tannic acid changes a raw animal skin to supple, long-lasting leather, so does it work to preserve wine, although it is mostly a factor for red wines. Over time, small tannin molecules link together, become larger and heavier, and eventually fall out of the wine as sediment. While doing so, they help the wine age slowly and gracefully.
- Unfortunately, the evidence is at best mixed as regards preserving human brain cells, but think instead of fruits preserved in a jar of vodka. By inhibiting the actions of yeasts and bacteria, alcohol helps preserve those fruits and it does the same for wine flavours. All else equal, the higher the alcohol content, the longer the wine’s likely life—port is a good example.
To sum up, if you are thinking about cellaring a bottle, ask yourself firstly: does it have sufficient fruit substance to make the delayed gratification worthwhile? And, if so, are there sufficient acids, sugars, tannins, and alcohol levels to extend its life? A final word of advice, born of bitter personal experience: tis better to drink too young than too late.