“Just like wine, I improve with age” is a common slogan found on many t-shirts and aprons at winery gift shops. But is it true? Although your Aunt Sally may very well improve with age, the same cannot be said for all wines. Most wines, in fact, are meant to be consumed as soon as they are released from the wine maker.
A wine’s ability to age has a lot to do with its tannic structure, acid level and pH. Environmental factors such as the wine’s vintage and storage conditions also play a role in the wine’s ability to age.
The wines that age best are those that contain a lot of tannins (red wines) and those that are high in acid (white wines). These flavor compounds act as preservatives for the wine during aging. As tannic red wines age, the tannins — which give the wine a very dry, astringent mouth feel — soften, providing a smoother mouth feel. The same is true with the acidic white wines. The complexity of the wine’s aroma will also improve and more aroma layers will be present in a successfully aging wine. The color will thin out and start to take on more brown tones. The fruit of the wine will be more pleasant and the wine will be very balanced, where it will not be too acidic or too hot in alcohol or too sweet.
A successfully aged wine will have all of its components in harmony. If a wine is aged too long, however, it will start to spiral downhill in flavors and lose its complexity and harmony.
Wine types that age well are primarily Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. Wine types that do not age well are most other white varieties, rosé wines, White Zinfandel and sparkling wines.
Fortified wines, such as basic sherry, ports, Champagne, and ice wines do not need to be aged because they have already been properly aged prior to their release. Some very special varieties of these can be aged, but these are generally the most expensive varieties. Largely produced commercial wines that are consistent from year to year will not benefit from aging because the components of these wines are adjusted to make them as balanced as possible at their release. Very inexpensive wines such as jug, box wines, and Nouveau wines are meant for everyday consumption and should be drunk as they are purchased.