Wine 101: Older Isn’t Always Better

When it comes to wine, an older bottle is not necessarily better. Rather — like the ripening of a fruit — it’s about waiting for each bottle to reach the perfect age.

Drink your wines too “green” and it may taste harsh — with overpowering tannins, strong alcohol and flavors that are unbalanced, much like when a dish is cooked with too much pepper or salt. Wait too long to drink it and the wine may have lost its vibrant fruit flavors and seem dead or flat on the palate, like stale food.

Unfortunately, there’s no science to how long you should wait before popping the cork on your bottle. A short-aging time can last anywhere from two to five years of the vintage date; longer-aging wines can sit for a decade. Only a small percentage of rare and fine wines warrant aging for many decades.

Don’t know where to start? Follow these rules of thumb:

Use the grape, region and price point as indicators. Certain wines made from robust and bold grapes, like a Shiraz, can age for longer — five to 20 years — than those made from lighter-bodied grapes like Merlot — two to 10 years.

An Old World region, such as France, tends to produce wines that can be aged for longer than New World producers, such as those in California, where there are more ready-to-drink wines. For instance, a Grand Cru Burgundy — the highest classification for this kind of wine — can be aged for half a century; a New Zealand Pinot Noir, on the other hand, needs only two or three years in the bottle. And a $1,000 bottle of wine will probably need to age longer than a $10 bottle — price isn’t always the best indicator of quality, but fine wines, which are pricey, tend to have more aging potential.

Don’t forget white wines. White wines have traditionally been known to age for less time than red wines. Certain wine varietals, such as Sauvignon Blancs, can typically be consumed within five or six years to retain their fruity characteristics and fresh aromas. But some whites, such as Chardonnays (especially Old World bottles from Burgundy), are heavier in body and acidity. Thus certain bottles can age for many decades.

And let’s not overlook Champagnes. Most Champagnes are not meant to be aged, but vintage Champagnes, or those made with grapes only from the same year, can benefit from a few years of aging. (Vintage Champagnes are rare; most Champagnes are a blend of grapes from different vintages.) These bubbly wines can remain incredibly complex even after the bubbles have dissipated. There have been vintage Champagnes more than a century old, for instance, that remained flavorful when opened, even though the bubbles were long gone.

Fortified and dessert wines can be good for aging. Because these types of wine often have added alcohol, they are designed to be bold in taste. Over time, the flavors blend together and soften. Although aging isn’t necessary — most fortified and dessert wines are designed to be ready-to-drink — certain ports and sherries are great candidates for aging.

When in doubt, drink young. Wines that are young in age, despite being occasionally a little rough around the edges, are still a better bet than wines that have passed their prime, which can be almost undrinkable. (Some taste like watered-down wine; with others, the tastes have gone off — wine, like all food, is perishable.)

Storage conditions. The condition of your cellar (low temperature, high humidity and darkness) can also affect the aging potential of your wines. The more heat and movement a bottle endures, the less it is capable of aging.


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