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What’s the point in ageing wine in bottle?

lafite cellar

For those who haven’t had the transcendent pleasure of tasting a bottled aged wine at the peak of its maturity, all the talk about old bottles and aging might seem like wine w**k to the nth degree. It is certainly true that amongst all the talk of longevity, drinking windows, and structure built for aging, the point of the whole exercise gets lost to some people. But when done properly, with the right bottle, and drunk at the right time, an aged wine can give you a drinking experience not possible any other way.

The point of aging wine in bottle is that it can develop complexity of aromas, flavours, and change in texture in a way that can’t be mimicked.  This gives for a unique drinking experience that only you (and anyone lucky enough to share it with you) can experience at that moment in time with that bottle.

What kind of wine is good to age?

Not all wines benefit from aging in bottle. Most wines are made to be drunk in the first couple of years and either won’t develop in a beneficial way or worse might lose their fruit character and become worse! It’s better to drink a wine before its peak than after it in almost every instance.  A wine that is before its peak will be alive and be good drinking. With a bit of experience you can start to see where it is on its journey. A wine past its peak will taste tired and flat, a ghost of itself, the wasted opportunity leaving a bitter taste.

Wines that can age for a long time and develop need have at least one of the following:

  • high acid
  • high tannin
  • high sugar, or
  • high alcohol.

Whilst this in some cases can make the wine unpleasant to drink young, they protect the wine during the aging process, softening and integrating over time. As so often is the case though, balance is the key. To go with the high acid/tannic/alcohol/sugar the wine needs to have a similarly high core of fruit flavour and aroma.  

riesling colour

The colour of white riesling develops dramatically with bottle age

How does age affect flavours?

Wines flavours are typically arranged into three categories:

  • Primary – the flavours from crushing and fermenting grapes
  • Secondary – flavours imparted by the winemaking process e.g. oak
  • Tertiary – flavours that develop over time in the bottle

Primary fruit flavours will diminish over time, with the more savoury elements of the wine increasing in complexity.  It is this development of aromas and flavours and their integration with the structural elements that can’t be achieved any other way. 

sediment bottle

Sediment will naturally form over time so its a good idea to decant old bottles

So what should I age/drink?  

Which wine improves with age is an absolutely personal thing. There is certainly no right or wrong answer. For example the French ridicule the English for liking old Champagne (which by the way is delicious! They don’t know what they are missing!). The only way to see how wine develops and to see if you think that’s an improvement is to taste it for yourself.  The best way to do this would be buy an inexpensive case of wine that you like, whether it’s Clare Valley Riesling, Cool climate Pinot Noir or a tannic northern Italian red. Drink one every few months and see what happens to it. From first to last bottle you will notice it change and develop. Whether or not that’s for the better or worse only you can say.

Another good way to see what the fuss is about is to buy two different vintages of the same wine with a good track record for aging, preferably 5 or more years apart. Whilst there is likely to be vintage variation and a bit of difference in wine making here or there you will be able to see the difference bottle age brings. If you like what you taste you can experiment more and with a little bit of experience can easily start a compact interesting cellar.

To help you on your journey discovering the world of aged wine here is a little table of wines commonly aged, what about them makes them good for aging, and what tends to happen to them as they age.

Wine

Region(s)

Reason it can age well

From

To

RieslingClare Valley, Eden Valley, Alsace, GermanyRazor sharp acidityTart citrus and floralToast and Petroleum
Semillon Hunter Valley, BordeuaxAustere AcidityFairly neutral aromaticsToasted bread and lime marmalade
Oaked ChardonnayBurgundy, Yarra Valley, Mornington, Margaret River,  California Acidity, Structural elements from M.L.F and Oak AgingCitrus and toasted notesNuts, Spice, Earth
Pinot NoirBurgundy, Mornington, Yarra Valley, Oregon High Acidity and balance of fruit and savoury elementsBright berry fruit with earthy elementsTurned earth, forest floor, Mushroom
Nebbiolo Barolo, Barbaresco, smattering of great Australian producers like, Luke Lambert, Giaconda, and Jasper Hill High acidity and super taught tannins Intense fruit with roseTruffles, Tar, pot pourri, leather
Shiraz/SyrahBarossa, Mclaren Vale, Northern RhoneHigh Acidity, Tannin, Often Alcohol Dark fruit and pepperCured meat, leather, black olive
Cabernet SauvignonBordeaux, California, Yarra Valley, Margaret RiverHigh TanninBlackcurrant, tomatoTomato leaf, herbal, menthol
TempranilloRioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro High Acid, sometimes tanninSour cherries, LavendarTobacco, cedar, hung game, leather, baking spices
GrenacheSouthern Rhone, Priorat and Montsant Mclaren Vale,High alcohol, sometimes tanninStrawberries and RaspberriesSpices, dark earth, pepper, meat

For more on the development of wine, read about closures in our Corks vs Screwcap article, and for more on decanting and serving, check out What Kind of Glass to Use.

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Matt Shaw

Matt Shaw

Matt has been obsessed with food and drink for as he can remember. Falling in love with wine was a matter of when not if. Now a WSET Diploma student and C.M.S Certified Sommelier he plies his trade at MoVida in the C.B.D.. The only time Matt is happier than when he is chatting about wine is when he has a glass of Barolo in hand and some cured meat to pick at.
Matt Shaw

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