To Age or Not to Age

As a wine retailer, I am often asked about the aging/cellar potentials of specific wines, and I typically find myself tounge-tied as to how to respond.  Don’t get me wrong, I know which wines in my store have the capacity to age and improve and which ones don’t, but I often wonder if a lot of Americans are going to be pleased with the results of their patience.  Thus, I thought I’d write a little piece on the wine aging process, its ramifications and specifically on what attributes must be present in a wine to make it “ageworthy”.

My Intro to “Old” Wine

There are many exceptions, but most Americans tend to prefer their wines big, bold and fruit forward.  Some of you may write to say that you disagree, but I’ve been in this business for 13 years, and this is simply what I have observed.  We live in a country where we want it now, we want it bigger and we want to pay the least amount possible for it.  I’m not saying this is good or bad, I’m just saying this is how it is.  I wonder how many of my fellow citizens have ever actually tasted a wine that has been properly stored and aged?  I would venture to guess that it’s not very many.  I have been very fortunate in my career to work with and around some very gracious people and mentors (E.H. to name one) who have exposed me to the virtues of aged wine, and I definitely appreciate them and the wines they’ve shared with me.  I believe it was a bottle of 1994 La Rioja Alta “Vina Arana” that I consumed with my former employer back in 2004 or so that really opened my eyes, my mind and my palate to the glories of an aged wine.  The nose was unlike anything I’d ever smelled in a wine……..complex, earthy, dried fruit, truffle and spices are some of the descriptors that come to mind.  Regardless, it completely shattered what I thought I knew about wine, as I had been a big fan of fruit bomb Australian and Californian wines up until then.  I immediately began researching what it was that caused this wine to taste and smell so much different from anything I’d ever tried before.
Perfectly Aged Riesling
I quickly discovered that acid and tannin play an integral role in the ability of a wine to age and the higher the levels of each, the more likely the wine will have the ability to age into something better.  Both acid and tannins act as preservatives, slowing oxidation and decelerating the flavor-changing reactions. Tannins are a category of chemicals that come from grape skins and seeds. They have an astringent, somewhat bitter taste and make your mouth feel dry. But over time, tannins “soften” because they polymerize, or form long chains with each other, and the tannin polymer molecules feel and taste less harsh.  As a wine ages, it also develops a stronger aroma. Before tannins chain up, they “hold on” to volatile aroma chemicals, keeping them from evaporating.  The jury is still out, but I’m a firm believer that natural cork is the preferred enclosure if you plan on aging your wine.  Cork is ever so slightly porous which allows for a very slow and gradual micro-oxygenation of the wine which allows the abovementioned processes to occur.  I love screwcaps, but being that they don’t allow any oxygen into the wine at all, I’m skeptical about the ability of a screwcap-enclosed wine to age gracefully, if at all.  I could be wrong, but common sense tells me I’m not.  So now you’re probably wondering what an aged wine tastes like, and why you should even consider “laying your wine down”.  You’re probably also wondering which wines are the best candidates for testing out my theories.
Loire Valley Chenin – Try in 10 Years!
As discussed above, a chemical process occurs as a wine is stored properly and aged.  Ideally, you want to store your wine on its side to keep the cork moist and at a temperature of about 55 degrees Farenheit.  Depending on the wine, you might want to age it for 5, 10, 20 or even 50 years, or I should say that depending on the wine those potentials for aging exist.  The key here is to work with your local independent wine monger, as they should be able to provide you with an ideal drinking window on the wine and why that particular wine is ageworthy.  Here’s where it gets interesting and where you need to ask yourself a serious question: Will you appreciate the flavors, aromas and textures of an aged wine over that of a wine meant to be consumed young?  In terms of red and white wines, the goal of aging them is to end up with a wine that tastes better, more complex and more balanced than it would if you consumed it early.  With reds, the fruit will fade, the color will become more brickish, and the flavors will lean more in the direction of dried fruit, leather, earth, exotic spices and such.  With whites, such as German Riesling, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, Hunter Valley Semillon and some White Burgundies, the fresh, high acid fruit flavors will transform into bready, nutty, earthy and sometimes liqueurish, nectar-like flavors.  Folks, this is what many wealthy folks spend hundreds of dollars to accomplish, but if this doesn’t sound like your bag, then don’t even bother as there are literally thousands of wines on the market today that offer immediate gratification.  They might be a bit simpler and fruitier, but that doesn’t mean they’re better or worse, just different.
When most people think of the ideal wines to age, they often reference the great red wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, and sometimes the Napa Valley and Washington state.  Others, myself included, love to age white wines, such as German Rieslings, Vouvrays, Savennieres and White Burgundies. Pick your poison, but understand in great vintages, where there is a good balance of sunshine, warmth and little rain, the grapes ripen evenly and slowly thus allowing for a great balance of natural sugars, acids and tannins.  In a nutshell, you’ve got a great raw product loaded with an abundance of natural antioxidant material. 

For many of us, spending thousands of dollars on First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy is just not an option, and I’ve got good news for you.  We live in a “Golden Age” of wine and one doesn’t need to spend thousands or even hundreds of dollars on wine to start their own cellar.  Furthermore, one doesn’t need to invest thousands of dollars on a temperature controlled cellar with elaborate wooden shelving and whatnot.  Without getting into specifics, shop with a trusted local, independent retailer and test them out.  Tell them you’d like to begin collecting some wine for aging and see how they respond.  If they immediately take you to wines that cost $50 plus, run away.  However, if they tell you that any good collection of wine should contain a number of different wines with different aging capacities, you’re probably in good hands.  As for your home “cellar”, a dark closet that stays relatively cool, underneath the bed or a below-ground garage or basement will typically do the trick.  The key here is to make sure that the area you choose doesn’t experience major variations in temperature or light, and that the temperature doesn’t get above 65 degrees or so.  Storing wine above 55 degrees doesn’t mean that the wine is going to turn bad, but it might age a little more quickly.  You’re now armed with all the information you need to start collecting wine; start with a small collection.  Maybe buy a few cases a year that you plan to sit on for a bit, and if the bug catches you, I take no responsibility for the addiction that will ensue.

Lopez Heredia Riojas

To finish up, here is a great article from the Brooklynguy’s Food and Wine Blog discussing the Riojas of Lopez Heredia.  These are amazing wines that are all ready released late (5 to 10 years after bottling), but they’re a bit like the Energizer Bunny………they just keep on going.  At $25 to $75 a bottle, I believe they would be great options to start your collection with.


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