I think an Aaliyah song said it best: age ain't nothing but a number.
BUT age means a little something-something when it comes to wine. The drinking experience can & will change dramatically based on the time in which you choose to drink a wine. It is important to observe bottles not only at their current stage, but also their next stage in life. Think of wine in its first year of release as an infant, especially if you are consuming it within that same year. Infants grow & develop over time to become the preschooler, teenager, and eventual adult, taking on brushstrokes from life to reach their peak. There are things they couldn't do when they were younger; traits they didn't have or didn't reveal themselves. Wine mirrors that journey, becoming an evolved version of itself over time. Also, cue up any and all controversies surrounding that Aaliyah song for me to enjoy when going back to read through this, ha! If you haven't seen the first entry in the 27 Bottles series, check out the first entry to understand the themes at play here------the why of it all.
For a long time, I didn't understand the benefits of ageing wine or why it is an important factor to consider with wine. Every bottle is literally screaming "drink me now" in my personal opinion, so I often miss the value of waiting to consume a wine later in its lifetime. I promise I'm doing better about that though, much to the dismay of my wine fridge & dwindling wine storage. The bottle that put age & even the concept of vintage into perspective for me was a bottle of 1996 Dr. Loosen Kabinett Riesling. In the hierarchy of German wines & the Pradikatswein flow chart, Kabinett Riesling sit at the lowest ripeness levels meaning they will have less sweetness to them than those of the higher tiers Spatlese & Beerenauslese. So, this once drier style had taken on many sweeter tones at its old age that would indicate that the 2017 vintage could also veer into the same territory of flavors/aromas if given the opportunity.
Ageing shouldn't be seen as a way to categorically improve wine, but rather, a way in which we can change the drinking experience of that wine. Characteristics of a wine don't necessarily progress or show themselves off in unison, and more often than not, travel unique paths & timelines from each other that aging allows us to view. The younger Riesling from Dr. Loosen was zesty, like limes, full of stone fruits & juicy on the palate. The older vintage, the 1996, was distinctively nuttier, and like a citrus jam. That more developed character would not have displayed itself in the younger vintage without some additional time in bottle, and who's to say it would have actually panned out that way with all the different factors affecting wine's ability to age.
"Observing aged wine ----- color is usually the biggest indicator of age in wine. Reds that are inky purples will eventually turn copper, rusted hues and whites will veer into deep golden territory. "
Factors such as temperature, light exposure, humidity and the size of the bottle can impact the "ageability" (or lack thereof) of a wine. Oxygen, while the detriment to wine over time, also is a necessary for a wine to age. Cork seals, and even in the case of some stelvin closures/screwcaps, a small amount of oxygen is able to come in contact with the juice while the bottle is sealed. Most of the bottles we consume are housed in the traditional 750ml sized bottles with standard cork sizes. Larger format bottles will actually slow down the ageing process due to the size of the cork while smaller format bottles will age faster & become more concentrated in flavor.
Winemakers or even professional wine buyers (restaurants, retailers, etc.) tend to have a better idea of how long a bottle should/could age based on trial & error----experience, folks. There is no perfect science for aging that we can draw from to ascertain exactly how long a wine should age. Coates Law of Maturity also references how once a wine has reached it's "peak" or optimal drinking time, it will also begin to decline in an equal amount of time (EX: A cab from 2016 drinking really well in 2026 will likely begin to show some wear & tear in the following 10 years). However, there are some key indicators that one can seek out that would imply a wine could benefit from more time in the bottle. We will skip over vintage & how that can play a factor/why it's important to save it for another entry on the blog!
"A mentor of mine often referenced ageing wine with a metaphor about a three-legged stool: tannins, alcohol & acidity. When wines lack one or the other, their potential for ageing gracefully dwindles and the stool falls down."
Again, while this isn't true in every case, wines that are high in alcohol, acidity or tannins tend to naturally elevate themselves on the playing field of ageability. These items make sense because youthful wines tend to be overt in their showing of those characteristics, and over time they can be softened out. Perfect example is a Chianti being aggressively acid forward or even having a tannic bite in its youth, but those rough edges round out later in its lifespan.
FUN FACT: Resveratrol, a natural reoccurring element in white & red grapes, slows down oxidization to prevent a wine from turning to early. Grapes higher in concentrations of resveratrol would make ideal candidates for aging.
While there is much to consider regarding which wines to age and which to pull the trigger on drinking now, don't let it stop you from just enjoying the juice. Especially when, as I mentioned earlier, those indicators for age worthy wines won't be apparent to you until you've had them in their youth. I've started a habit of buying two bottles of certain wines just so I can experiment with drinking one now & drinking the other later down the road.
Other articles to read if you're considering holding on to some fine wine: