One of the top questions I get asked by wine enthusiasts is how long to age a wine. We’ve previously discussed the 4 basic traits of an age-worthy wine. In this article we’ll take a deeper look at specific varietals and what to look for when aging wine.
Read more: Finding the right wine storage temperature.
How Long to Age Wine
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have great success cellaring and aging wines. In fact, cellaring affordable wines is very gratifying. Aged wines have amazing nutty, dried fig-like flavors and they’re something that anyone can enjoy with a little thinking ahead.
What Variety is it?
Many wine varieties will age quite well. However, some of these same varieties are typically produced in a ‘drink now’ style, making it less likely that they will cellar. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, so look more carefully into the producer if you’re not sure.
Varieties that Improve Over Time
- Classic Red Wine Blends (see list)
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Tempranillo (Reserva and above)
- Sangiovese (Riserva and above)
- Red Burgundy and other cool climate Pinot Noir
- Tannat, Sagrantino, Monastrell/Mourvèdre (See more Full Bodied Red Wines)
- Quality Portuguese Red Wines (See Examples)
- Vintage Port
- Vintage Madeira
- Tête de Cuvée Champagne
- Pinot Noir (about a 50/50 split depending on producer and region)
Youthful “Drink Now” Varieties
- Zinfandel / Primitivo
- Chenin Blanc
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Pinot Gris
- Pinot Noir (about a 50/50 split depending on producer and region)
Chart: See the wine aging chart for more specific examples.
What’s The Structure?
Hopefully you’ll have a chance to taste the wine before you consider cellaring it as this will help you identify its structural elements before deciding to store it. If not, try to get your hands on a wine tech sheet or tasting notes that talk about things like tannin, acidity and balance (see: wine descriptions chart)
For example, a red wine that is all tannin and the fruit is a faint whisper, barely fighting for a place on your palate what can you expect it to become? By the time the tannins mellow the fruit has as well and the wine will have grown old a taste accordingly. Charming? Maybe, but world class, not likely.
–Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, sommelier and winemaker, WT Vintners
Structural Elements of Age-Worthy Red Wine
- Acidity (moderate-high)
- This might just be the key component to whether a wine will age well or not. Acidity is an essential characteristic of high rated, great tasting old wines and, as wines age they lose acidity. Look for the tart, mouth watering sensation of acidity and be sure you’re not confusing it with high alcohol (which is easy to do if you’re just getting started).
- Tannin (moderate-high)
- Tannin should be moderately high, but not awkwardly overshadowing all the other flavors in the wine. You should still be able to taste the fruit, along with the somewhat grippy sensation of tannin and bitterness on the front sides of your tongue.
- Volatile Acidity (VA, low)
- VA or volatile acidity is a problematic type of acid, called acetic acid, that is often found in wine,. It will cause wine to degrade quickly. Acetic acid causes 2 types of aroma compounds to become too high and you can smell when they are out of whack. One aroma smells like acetone (nail-polish remover) and will burn on the tip of your nose (ethyl acetate). The other aroma smells like bruised apples (in a white wine) and a nutty brown sugar-like note in red wines (acetaldehyde). By the way, VA should never be higher than 1.2 g/L, and perhaps lower than .6 g/L, in most age-worthy wines.
- Alcohol Level (moderate)
- Although there are a few instances of high alcohol age-worthy wines, most need a balanced level of alcohol (12-14%). This is so that the oxidation that occurs in the bottle over time doesn’t cause a higher alcohol wine to oxidize and degrade more quickly.
- Overall Balance
- If the wine is all tannin and acid with no fruit, then it’s out of balance. You should still be able to identify some fruit flavors in the wine, even if they are overshadowed a little bit by structure. This is the primary reason why a wine writer may say ‘best after X’ in a wine tasting note.
Structural Elements of Age-Worthy White Wine
- Acidity (high)
- Since acidity is a key component of great tasting white wines, make sure that the wine has plenty of ‘gleek’ worthy acidity.
- Alcohol (low-moderate)
- Oxidation happens more quickly with white wines due to higher levels of volatile acidity and no structural components of color or tannin to slow the process. Thus, it’s smart to cellar whites with low–medium alcohol level, because higher alcohol causes faster oxidation.
- Phenolic Bitterness
- This term is relatively new to the world of wine enthusiasts, but it essentially describes the bitter pithy note in some white wines. A little bit of this flavor in wine is a good thing, it adds to its aging runway.
Who made the wine?
The techniques and style of winemaking can have a large effect on how long you can age a particular wine. Not all wine is made equal. You can still find plenty of affordable winemakers out there making superior age-worthy wines if you are willing to venture outside of the popular trends. Here is one technique to start identifying great winemakers:
- Check reviews/tasting notes for wines described as ‘benefit from age’ or ‘needing time in the cellar’.
- Figure out if the winemaker has any other side projects, unique varietal wines or offers any 2nd label wines (an introductory off-brand release by a top producer).
- Buy the side project wine, especially if it’s from a good vintage and taste it/cellar it.
- Use this wine as a benchmark for bare minimum quality and then expand your search to other lesser-known winemakers who may offer more affordable quality wines made with better grapes.
- Rinse and repeat in regions you love.
Was it a hot vintage?
Watch out for hot or “ripe” vintages. These wines will taste crazy delicious early on, but will fall apart and often get flabby (ie lose acidity) sooner, due to the physiology of how grapes ripen. Since acidity is a key component to slowing the development of faults in aging wine, it’s an essential component of an age-worthy wine.
Does it taste perfect now?
One final thing to note about whether or not a wine will age well is how it tastes right now. Most cellar worthy wines have quite a bit of structure (e.g. tannin and acidity) and are often described as ‘closed’ or ‘tight’ early on. Read more about wine descriptors. So, if it’s tasting perfect right now, that probably means you should drink it.
Washington State University: Acetaldehyde as it pertains to red and whites due to MLF (pdf)
UC Davis: Volatile Acidity in wine.