To Age or Not to Age Your Wine

(Originally published February 2001)

One of the greater mysteries of wine revolves around the question of aging bottles. There exists an elaborate mythos about the trip down to the dark and cool wine cellar, blowing dust off of a select choice bottle that has laid there undisturbed for thirty years and then bringing it upstairs to complete that special meal and occasion. The wine has transformed over the years into a stunning work of art, gaining characteristics impossible in its youth, and leaving your dinner guests speechless. Alas, while these magical moments can occur, the real truth is that they are mostly fairy tale fantasy -- 99% of the wine made is meant to be consumed within the first three years of its bottled life. And 99% of what you drink is in that 99% of wine.

As wine prices spiral upwards and consumers become more knowledgeable about wine, the lore of the well-aged bottle has taken on a misshapen life of its own. What was once a $10 bottle ten years ago now costs $35 or more and the sentiment exists that if a bottle costs that much, it is automatically worthy of being aged. Not so. There are a few wines that benefit from aging and Hanes will mention what most folks consider these to be. But since most wines are meant to be consumed more or less immediately, the real trick is in taking this list of ageable wines and applying it to purchasing scenarios.

First, the vast majority of white wines should be drunk young. White wines lack the tannins which red wines possess that provide most of the chemical compounds to preserve youthful fruit flavors while aid the development of secondary flavors over time. (Tannins are found in the stems, grape skins and seeds and they get into red wines because these parts are left in contact with the juice as the wine begins to ferment. This is also how red wines gain their color, all grape pulp (with a couple of exceptions) being white). Loosely, dry white wines that can age include Riesling (particularly from Germany, Austria or Alsace), Chenin Blanc (particularly from the Loire), some Chardonnay (particularly from Burgundy) and some Pinot Gris (particularly from Alsace). When made into sweet dessert wines, other varietals can age well, including Muscat, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. White wines are pleasurable in most part for their crisp fruit, minerality and sharp acidity, all of which fades over time in the bottle. Older white wines not meant to be aged will taste flabby and more woody if they were held in oak casks for any period of time. They get too heavy or too light and lose vibrancy.

Red wines also are pleasant for the ripe, round fruit and herbaceousness or earthiness they often possess. Over time many red wines develop flavors of roasted meats, bacon fat, leather or menthol. People like these flavors. But to get them, some freshness of fruit is lost. The most notable red wines for aging are Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux, some California and Italy), Syrah (Rhône, some California or Australia), Merlot (really just Bordeaux), Nebbiolo (Barolo and Barbaresco), Port wines (uhh, Portugal) and Tempranillo (Rioja). Many Burgundian Pinot Noirs age well too, as can Southern Rhône blends based on Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. High-end Sangiovese from Tuscany counts too.

Without getting too, too into splitting hairs, price is a good indicator of ageability when deciding about the types of wines listed above. An $100 Hermitage from the Rhône is more ageable than a $12 Côtes-du-Rhône even through both may be made from Syrah. People have spent generations figuring this stuff out and unless you're a wine geek, just follow their hard work. Wine is hard enough to understand as it is. Accept the exceptions as exceptions and for the most part you'll be OK. Part of a wine's desirability for hardcore wine lovers is its ability to take on secondary flavors over time, and this desirability for that 1% of wines that can "turn secondary" translates into higher prices for them. 'Nuff said.

Most of the wines you will drink, the basic Chiantis, Zinfandels, Chardonnays, Merlots, Pinot Grigios, etc. should go down the hatch within a year or two or three. For the most part, this rule will not let you down so don't stress too much about it. Especially if your wine comes in a cardboard box at the supermarket. However, if you do decide to buy and age some wine or buy an already aged wine, there is a phenomenon of which you need to be aware. This is the infamous "shutdown" period in a wine's evolution.

Many high quality, ageable wines undergo a period of time during which they can become quite nasty to drink because their flavor profiles are mutating and changing and have not finally come together and integrated. This is called the wine's shutdown period. Such wines may also be called "dumb" or "asleep." The secondary flavors are beginning to show but they are still incomplete or obscured by the primary flavors which have not yet mellowed or evened out. The part that sucks is that the shutdown period for a wine is notoriously hard to predict. You may buy a certain Bordeaux wine that tasted fine when new and showed lots of promise for gaining secondary flavors over time. The question is, when will it be ready? Again, unless you purchase a case to taste at regular intervals you must depend on history and the wisdom of others. For example, many Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines such as Bordeaux start to shut down around three to four years of the vintage date. A good many of them get dumb and don't come around until eight, nine years or more after the vintage date. If you taste a bottle during the shutdown you'll think it went bad or wasn't stored properly or that maybe you were already too drunk when you tasted it as a new, young wine. This may not necessarily be so. The wine is just "dumb" or "asleep." Wait another five or more years and, boom, you have perfection. This phenomenon is one of the more interesting challenges of wine appreciation but also one of the most frustrating. And costly too, as opening an expensive bottle that is dumb wastes not only the money spent for its purchase but probably the money spent on storage costs too. A special occasion can get tainted quickly when the centerpiece wine does not show well.

These few words of caution should be considered by more than those who are building wine collections and believe anytime could be a good time to pop open that special bottle after a few years of aging. The most important situation to consider the merits of aging fine wine is when ordering in a restaurant. Sadly, many premium ageable wines on the wine lists at swank restaurants have not been aged at all and are current or recent releases. If you do order that pricey 1998 Rhône Hermitage expecting perfection in a glass you are not going to get it. Hell, you may or may not get it if it is an 1990 Hermitage. In many situations you are better served ordering a less prestigious wine off the wine list because it is simply drinking better at that moment. A special occasion is made special by ordering a wine that is currently drinking well, not because it holds future promise or past glory. Or a pretty, pretty label.

So, while you may want to avoid that hot cult Californian Cabernet that has just been released, so too do you want to avoid one that is in its dumb phase. If the restaurant has a credible sommelier, s/he can advise you of which wines may be asleep even while appearing on the wine list. After all, most restaurants are fairly new and have not been in a position to buy and hold to age 12 consecutive vintages of a particular wine, releasing them only when at the height of perfection. They buy what they can, when they can get it and try their best to offer wines ready to drink. (Hanes is being generous in attributing such foresight and kindness to a restaurant's crafting of a wine list. But he likes to see the good in people.)

Luckily for most wine drinkers, many winemakers are trying to create wines more approachable when young and less likely to undergo a prolonged dumb phase. Some people oppose this "homogenization" of wines but for most wine consumers it eliminates a few more troublesome variables in the wine purchasing process. But, for now, when buying premium wines don't be "dumb" by ignoring the various aging curves of wines in that 1% that deserve to accumulate years of dust on the label.