How Wines Age
What do old wines taste like? And… the question we’re all wondering: are old wines better than young wines? Learn how wines age by observing a single wine (a Merlot) produced for nearly 30 years from the same vineyard by the same winery. What you’ll discover might surprise you, it certainly surprised us.
How Wines Age
We’ve all heard “the older, the better” when it comes to wine, but is this really true?
In reality, there aren’t that many wines built to last (maybe only 3% of the market). Also, these collector wines don’t usually taste great when they’re first released. They’ll often have wine descriptions like “closed,” “tight,” “austere,” “grippy” or “hold” and even sometimes get tagged with a lower rating. This is because the wine hasn’t aged enough to open up to its full potential.
Selecting the right age-worthy wine
To conduct this test we had to be certain we were picking a wine built to last from the very beginning. Wines that age well will have heightened structural traits (like acidity and tannin) which act like a runway as the wine changes over time. We sought a wine that everyone is familiar with and came across Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard Merlot which has a reputation for cellar-worthiness.
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How color changes with age
As wines age we observe the red color (anthocyanin) changing from more deeper ruby and violet hues to paler red and orange colors. Merlot is actually one of those varieties that’s famous for going orange faster than other red wines (like Cabernet Sauvignon). If you wait long enough, the red pigment will eventually become a dull translucent brown color (like a browned apple).
We were surprised when we opened the nearly 30 year old bottle of Merlot to see that, although the color had changed, the wine was still quite opaque in color. It even looked more opaque in the center than the most youthful vintage. We suspect that this may have to do with the lower alcohol level in this wine (listed at 12.9% vs. 14.5%) since alcohol is known to dissolve the color. There’s also the possibility that the wine was produced with less sulfur (although we don’t have any proof of this), but sulfur dioxide–sulfites,–bleach anthocyanin as well.
How taste changes with age
As wines age we observe the structural characteristics of acidity and tannin begin to fade. Beyond this, most experienced tasters describe older wines as having more dried or stewed fruit and spice characteristics from slow oxidation.
When tasting the 1999 and the 1987 vintages, we did note a clear drop in acidity and tannin in the wine as well as fruit characteristics changing from fresh and tart fruits to more dried or stewed fruits. The interesting thing was that, over time, the fruit flavors in the wine seemed to open up and become more bold. This was unexpected given that the young wines didn’t seem to have very much fruit to begin with and the fruit flavors were generally a bit tart.
A wine’s perfect moment
There was a moment with this particular Merlot where the vintage tasted as though all the characteristics of tannin, acidity and alcohol were in perfect balance and this was also when the fruit shined through. The 1999 bottle (the wine is nearly 17 years old) still had blackberry and strawberry aromas along with other interesting aged flavors of dried strawberries and dried leaves on the finish. It was complex.
Conditions of tasting: Poured wine into glass and let air for ~10 minutes then tasted in a 54 F room (so cold in here!).
2011 Duckhorn 3 Palms Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot
- Visual: slight haze. Deep violet ruby core leading into a 1/3 cm wide meniscus of ruby to ruby-garnet rim. Violet-tinged staining of the tears.
- Aroma: Clean. Medium minus intensity (e.g. “closed”) aromas of black currant, strawberry sauce, violet and pastille candy.
- Taste/Structure: Clean. Medium intensity. Medium plus acidity, medium plus fine grained tannin and medium alcohol. Flavors of strawberry sauce, tart blackberry and vanilla that leads into mouth puckering acidity that tastes like fresh tart plums and fine grained tannin on the mid palate. Finish is medium long with notes of fresh blackberry, fresh strawberry and lingering tannin.
- listed ABV: 14.5%
2006 Duckhorn 3 Palms Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot
- Visual: Very slight haze. Deep ruby core leading into 1/3 cm wide meniscus of ruby to red-ruby rim. Staining of the tears.
- Aroma: Clean. Bold intensity aromas of sweet blackberry sauce, plum sauce, anise, raspberry hard candy and vanilla.
- Taste/Structure: Clean. Medium plus boldness mainly from structural qualities (e.g. tannin) and not fruit. (aka it’s “tight”). Medium plus to high acidity, high tannin and medium alcohol. Flavors of raspberry sauce and green rainier cherry that leads into robust tannin that feel like a tongue depressor on the mid palate. Finish is medium with notes of black tea and hibiscus.
- listed ABV: 14.5%
1999 Duckhorn 3 Palms Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot
- Visual: Slight haze, some particles. Medium ruby core with 1/2 cm wide meniscus starting at red-ruby to red brick rim. Staining of the tears.
- Aroma: Clean. Bold intensity aromas of sweet stewed plum, blackberry, pastille candy(anise seed), strawberry freezer jam, vanilla and a slight hint of milk chocolate.
- Taste/Structure: Clean. Bold flavor. Medium plus acidity, medium plus fine grained tannin, medium plus alcohol. Flavors of strawberry sauce, sweet cherry sauce, milk chocolate, a savory white pepper note leading into fresh raspberries on the mid palate. Finish is long and slowly leads into notes of cocoa powder, dried leaves, dried strawberries with the afterglow of alcohol.
- listed ABV: 14.5%
1987 Duckhorn 3 Palms Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot
- Visual: Hazy. Deep opaque ruby core with a cm wide meniscus starting at red to pale orange brick rim. Little to no staining of the tears
- Aroma: Clean. Bold intensity aromas of star anise, stewed plum, carob, dried chili pepper, sun-dried strawberry, faint vanilla bean, and dried leaves
- Taste/Structure: Clean. Medium plus boldness, medium acidity, medium fine grained tannin, medium plus alcohol. Flavors of stewed plums, stewed raspberries and white pepper leading into sour cherry sauce and rose stem on the mid palate. Finish is long and slowly fades with notes of dried roses, dried leaves, prune and the afterglow of alcohol.
- listed ABV: 12.9%