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Contrary to popular belief, not all wines get better with time. In fact, it is arguable that most wines are already aged to perfection at the time of purchase and should be enjoyed immediately. Many people want to know if the wine will age in the barrel and in bottles. This is a great question and worthy of a deeper look.
Does wine age in bottles and in barrels? Wine will age in both bottles and in barrels but to what extent depends on the types of grapes, how it is stored, and how it is prepared by the winemakers. A very small percentage of wine is ageable and most wines should be drunk after buying. With some wines, the aging process can greatly enhance the experience but aging can ruin many other wines.
Aging wine can be a collaborative process between the winemaker and the consumer. There are decisions that the winemaker can make to mature the wine, as well as ways to continue the aging process at home. At the winery, a winemaker decides whether to age a wine in oak, and whether to age the wine in a bottle at the winery. Both of these processes further a wine’s maturation.
But the life of the wine does not end there — wine can still evolve beyond the walls of the winery. After the wine finishes the initial fermentation and aging, it continues to age in the bottle. That means the wine is aging as it sits on the shelf in the wine store or in a restaurant wine cellar.
The wine will continue to age in the bottle long after you buy it. You may choose to store your bottle for years or end the wine aging journey there by popping the cork. At every step of the lifespan of a bottle, the wine will reveal new characteristics.
Part of the magic of wine is that it is sort of like a living thing, and drinking the wine at various stages of its aging process will uncover wildly different wines.
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Aging Process for Wine
Let’s first review the technical components of how wine ages so we can speak more in-depth about how wine ages more specifically in a bottle and a barrel.
A number of reactions occur in the aging process which lends a wine new flavor profiles. The new flavors that come with age can be desirable or not so much, depending on the grape varietal and the preferences of the drinker.
In fact, only about 1% of all wine is suitable for long-term aging. The rest will grow dull and lifeless with extended cellaring. But what exactly is happening in the aging process to create this shift in flavor?
First of all, the primary aromas that were once so prominent will begin to fade into the background. This occurs all while new, often more complex, secondary aromas come forward.
This is due to all the elements that compose a wine reacting with one another in new ways. Acids and alcohol in wine cause a reaction over time that forms new compounds. This happens while other flavor compounds dissolve and reform into new compounds.
This is a continuous process and the flavors continue to evolve over time. Beyond flavor, the texture also evolves with age. Red wines will become smoother and silkier, and white wines will develop greater richness.
This happens as phenolic compounds (like tannins) fall out and convert into sediment over time. And then there is the most visually obvious result of wine cellar which is a color change.
The color of the wine will change as the wine slowly oxidizes. White wines will turn a darker gold/brown color, and red wines will lose color and turn a rust/brown shade.
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What Factors Contribute to Wine Aging?
There are decisions a winemaker makes in the field and cellar, as well as variants such as weather, that can affect the aging potential of a wine.
The age-ability of a wine begins with the grapes themselves. If the grapes have too much water content at harvest, the wine will be diluted and won’t have as many polyphenols that make for successful aging.
This is one reason why winemakers are devastated when a big rainstorm hits their vineyard prior to harvest. The grapes will be flooded with excess water, and completely dilute the finished product. Some winemaking techniques allow winemakers to remove water entirely from the grapes.
Eiswein is an example of a wine made by removing the water in the grapes, and the finished product is highly age-worthy. When making eiswein, the water is frozen and removed from the grapes in order to leave a pure and concentrated grape must.
Similarly, smaller grape yields when picking are better because they contain less water to juice. Older vines are king when it comes to creating ageable wines. Younger vines have less concentrated flavor and the grapes made from them have lower polyphenol content.
Grapes with thicker skins and small, concentrated berries, also have a better chance of successful aging. This is because phenolic compounds in the grape skins (such as tannins) act as preservatives for the wine. Once in the cellar, there are still more decisions a winemaker can make to affect age-ability.
Tannin levels can be increased by keeping the grape skins in contact with the must for a longer amount of time. The amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2) added to the wine by the winemaker also determines how well the wine will age.
Sulfur dioxide is an antioxidant and antiseptic that limits oxidation and potential bacteria that can infiltrate a wine. This is why many “natural wines” are so unstable and not suited for long-term aging.
Without sulfur dioxide, the wine is extremely vulnerable to wine faults.
Does Wine Age in Barrels?
What exactly occurs when a wine is placed in an oak barrel to mature? Aging in oak barrels is a very popular option for winemakers to mature wine at the winery. The amount of time spent in the barrel, as well as the age and size of that barrel, will affect the wine.
A winemaker has a choice between a completely new, never used before oak barrel, or a barrel that has been used lightly or used for many wines prior. A new barrel will impart the greatest flavor and structure to a wine.
The wine will be higher in tannins and will have vanilla and toast flavors. New oak barrels are incredibly expensive, but they create very age-worthy wines. Aging wine in oak concentrates its flavor and often creates a more refined wine.
Oak barrels contribute to the physiological compounds that allow a wine to age, but they also play an active role in aging the wine while it is still in the barrel. Oak barrels allow for minuscule amounts of air to penetrate through to the wine inside, which very slowly ages the wine.
Smaller oak barrels will allow more air to reach the wine, while larger barrels will age the wine slower. This is one reason why higher-priced wines are often the best wines for long-term aging. The size of the barrel also has a large impact on the finished product and the aging capacity of wine.
Smaller barrels (“barriques”) will impart a greater amount of flavor and texture because there is a greater amount of surface area touching the wine at one time. Larger barrels, like Italian “botti,” will impart less flavor because there is less surface area to reach the wine.
Does Wine Age in the Bottle?
Wine continues its aging journey in the bottle itself. Some wineries will opt to age wine for their customers to ensure wines are consumed at their peak. This is becoming less and less common, however, so most of the time you must exhibit the self-restraint to age your wine yourself.
Just like when aging in the barrel, wine bottles also allow for micro amounts of air to seep through and interact with the wine. This happens very slowly over time but can alter a wine quite profoundly.
But unlike when aging wine in a barrel, the bottle itself will not bring out new flavors in the wine, only in the reaction between the air and the wine.
Micro-oxidation is the primary cause of wine losing certain flavors and developing others. The speed of oxidation has to do with how much air was left in the bottle’s neck when the bottle was sealed and depends on the type of closure used.
Traditional cork closures allow for minimal oxygen to seep through, and because corks are a natural product, quality can vary and bottle variation can be an issue.
Synthetic closures, on the other hand, like Nomacork or even screwcap closures, allow for more regulated oxygen contact and less variability.
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Which Wine Should You Age & Not Age?
The composition of wine will affect its capacity to age and for how long. Various attributes such as the amount of sugar, acids, phenolics, and water are key to determining a wine’s age-ability.
As stated earlier, only 1% of all wines produced are intended for long-term aging. Most entry-level wines should be consumed in a 3-5 year window.
But there are some wines out there that are built for long-term aging, and some are even almost undrinkable without aging. So what kind of wines are suitable for long-term aging? There are a few key characteristics to look for in a wine to determine age-ability.
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The first is acid. When wine ages, the acid levels mellow out over time. That’s not something we want, because acid is a major component in creating a balanced wine and allows the wine to be paired with food more easily.
Therefore, wines with high acidity, to begin with, are excellent candidates for cellaring. High acid white wines like Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay, and high acid reds like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are great examples.
The second quality for successful aging is tannin. Just as acid fades over time, so too does the structure of a wine. Wines with aggressive tannins when young can soften considerably over time. Beyond taste, tannins also act as a preservative for wine.
High tannin red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Nebbiolo are fine choices for aging. The third quality on the checklist for age-worthy wines is alcohol level. Higher alcohol wines are more vulnerable and can turn to vinegar faster than lower alcohol wines.
That said, fortified wines are actually some of the most age-worthy wines, because of the presence of spirit. This is exemplified in the historical upper-class drinking culture surrounding Port wine. In England, it was a tradition to gift a newborn baby with a lifetime supply of Port from the child’s birth year.
The idea was that the wine would be ready to drink once the child was old enough to start drinking. Many fortified wines can be aged for 20+ years.
The final aspect that allows for high-quality aging is residual sugar, which also acts as a preservative. Some of the longest-lived wines are sweet like Sauternes, Sherry, and Riesling.
How Different Types of Wine Age in Barrels
Different varieties of wine react in unique ways depending on the elements of that specific wine. You’ll often see the same grape varieties made in a certain aging style time and time again. Chardonnay, for instance, seems to have an affinity for oak-aging.
The textural and flavor elements that oak-aging imparts collaborate nicely with the existing flavors of Chardonnay. Same with Cabernet Sauvignon — the vanilla and baking spice notes of the oak complement the grape’s black currant/blackberry fruit profile.
Some grapes need oak-aging to mellow out harsh acids and tannins and make them drinkable. Nebbiolo, one of the most tannic grapes in the world, is one example.
Many winemakers insist on aging for at least 30 years before drinking Nebbiolo because it needs time for the tannins to soften. Another example is the white grape Semillon. When young, Semillon has ripping acidity that can be overwhelming.
With age, however, Semillon changes its flavor profile entirely, developing honeyed and floral notes. Other grapes, like many styles of Sauvignon Blanc, opt for stainless steel fermentation/aging in order to preserve the fresh and crisp fruit character.
Best Practices for Aging Wine
Aging wine is a lot of trial and error. There will be factors beyond our control and we cannot always predict the outcome of the wine cellar. Sometimes you’ll do all of your research and still miss the prime drinking window.
There are numerous variable factors in the wine aging process that include decisions made at the winery, wine shop, and at your home. To combat all these variables, it’s best to do your research when seeking to purchase wine for long-term cellaring.
First, research the winemaking practices that influence a wine’s age-ability. Next, check if the transportation method to move the wine to the shop or auction house was temperature-controlled. Then, check if the storage at your merchant was properly regulated.
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Finally, consider the qualities of the grape variety you are thinking of cellaring long-term. Once you have all these factors in line, you’ll be able to set yourself up with an intentional wine cellar that will keep on giving for years to come.
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