When I first started drinking wine I had no knowledge of the concept of aging it. Well, when I really first started drinking wine I was in my early teens, having a small glass each week with my family at Sunday dinner, so I’m going to go ahead and give myself a pass on not immediately knowing how to cellar a bottle.
As I’ve drunk more, learned more and generally fallen down this delicious, wine-filled rabbit hole I find myself in it’s started becoming more clear to me when and why you might sock a bottle away for one, three, five, even twenty years.
Four Keys to Aging Wine
Beyond the initial and most important question (which is ‘do you like it?’) aging wine essentially comes down to four things:
These are the four major factors in how quickly a wine will turn to vinegar, even if you’ve stashed it in a cool, dark, cellar-y type place.
Quality certainly comes into it too, but the optimal balance of a combination of these four things is often what makes the powers that be deem a wine high quality in the first place, so we’re really just peeling back one further layer in talking about these elements.
Let’s think about the wines that we know can last a long time. Sherry. Port. Barolo. Cabernet Sauvignon. Riesling. Sauternes. All very age worthy, all high in some combination of alcohol, tannin, acid or sugar.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a closer look.
Sherry – high in alcohol, high in sugar
Port – high in alcohol, high in sugar
Barolo – high tannin, high alcohol
Cabernet Sauvignon – high tannin, high acidity
Riesling – high sugar, high acidity
Sauternes – high in sugar, high in acidity
These are just some examples, but there are others. (Do you know of any? Let me know in the comments!)
Wait, But Why?
So why are these four things the keys to a wine’s ageability? I won’t go into the science-y stuff (mostly because I don’t know it yet), but it’s my understanding that these four things essentially protect the wine and gives it a longer life. Since all wine wants to do is turn to vinegar as quickly as it can things like alcohol, tannin, acidity, and sugar can slow that process down. Add the wine to a container made of an inert material (like glass) and things slow down even further. Things aren’t completely stopped since most wines are still sealed with a breathable cork, but that’s ok – the changeability of wine is half the fun!
How to Spot an Ageable Wine
There are some markers you can look and taste for in searching for a wine that might stand the test of time.
Alcohol – Look for somewhere around or above 15%, wines don’t need to be as alcoholic as spirits to be age worthy.
Tannin – Something that leaves your mouth feeling a bit tingly is a good contender for high tannin and therefore potentially age worthy. Swirl it around your gums and behind your lips if you’re not sure.
Acidity – Does your mouth water like a faucet after you take a sip? Does your immediate reaction to a sip leave you with a puckered face and the flavour of citrus? High acidity, right there.
Sugar – You’ll want to look for wines that have a generous amount of grams per litre of sugar, like sherry, port and ice wine (120-220 g/L), sweet wines (35-120 g/L) or even some off-dry wines (10-35 g/L). The shelf label at your local LCBO will list this information.
Remember that you will want to find a wine with a combination of these factors, not just one. Finding two is great, finding three is exceptional (and probably expensive), finding four might be impossible.
The Final Question on Choosing a Wine to Age
I’m currently taking a wine class at a local college and with every tasting we’re asked to determine how long we think any given wine should age for. I tend to agree with my teacher, who says that, in reality, any wine in the LCBO could be enjoyed now. So how do you decide to store something away, to take that gamble? We consider this with each wine we taste in class, and every time the question comes up our teacher asks us in turn:
Will this wine get any better with age?
Will it benefit at all from more time?
Sometimes the answer is yes. We can make assumptions about how much longer the acidity will last before the wine gets tired and ‘flabby’, and we can estimate whether the tannins will soften further based on what kind of wine it is and how old it is.
And sometimes the answer is no. The wine might not be well-balanced enough to stand up (for example, if the tannins soften and leave too much acidity in its wake), or it might have aged as much the wine will allow. Or you might just not like the wine, which is completely acceptable!
Regardless, aging wine can be a fun game, especially if you save a bottle or two of something you know is a perennial favourite or something always stocked at the lcbo. That way you can save bottles for a year or two and then taste three years side by side (this is called a vertical tasting) to see how the wine changes – it’s great for learning!
Do you age wine? What’s been your biggest payoff or disappointment? Do you have a go-to age-worthy wine?