To ageor notto age?

Your guide to which winesget better with time – and whichto drink right now

Published: Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 11:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 11:08 p.m.

Wade Tyler stillgets wistful when he thinks of the perfectly aged 1945 Château Pétrus he tasted one Christmas nearly 30 years ago.

"Marvelous," recalls Tyler, co-owner of the Wine & Cheese Gallery. "It was the only time the nose of the wine was as magnificent as the taste. I made that 4-ounce glass last all day."

While Tyler sampled that most coveted of vintages after it had aged for 30 years, most wines aren't made to last that long. So when you're perusing your wine rack deciding what to serve your guests this holiday season, how can you tell which ones are ready to drink, which might be past their prime and which would benefit from longer aging?

"A wine that tastes more intense, with a density of flavor, is generally going to age better than a light and fruity wine," says Dan Eddy of Gator Spirits in Westgate Regency. The guidelines on aging wine can be complicated, but a few rules of thumb can steer you toward the perfect pour.

Rule 1: High-tannin wines tend to age better, Eddy says. Tannins are the organic compounds that give wine its backbone or structure.

"The higher the tannin, the higher the longevity," he says. That means reds usually age better than whites, but not all reds improve over time.

"Most of the really affordable wines are not made to age," Eddy says. Likewise with wines meant to drink young, such as beaujolais. "As a beaujolais ages, it's losing its fruit flavors and getting woody," he says.

Tyler says most red wines are at their best two to 10 years after bottling, while "a loose generalization would be that whites are at their best two to five years out," he says.

"With whites like sauvignon blanc, riesling, torrontes – wines that are crisp, light and fruity – the purity of the grape is where flavor comes from," Tyler explains. "With time, those elements become more mellow." That's not something you want in a wine intended to feature fresh, fruity notes.

Rule 2: European wines tend to age better than New World bottles.

"It's just a cultural difference," Eddy says. "Many New World wineries do a secondary fermentation, which makes whites taste buttery and makes reds softer and more accessible when they're young. In Europe, the expectation is that you might wait five to 10 years to drink a bottle you buy today. Here, we tend to be more impatient. We want to buy a bottle we can drink now."

Rule 3: In general, the higher the price point, the better a wine will age. (Among the varietals that age well, that is.) The safest bet for an ageable wine that won't set you back more than $50 is cabernet sauvignon, Eddy and Tyler say.

"Cabernets and cabernet-style wines tend to be barrel-aged, which adds more tannic structure and potential longevity. They have the ability to be bigger, fuller, more forward, more harmonious when aged," Tyler says. "A high-quality cab, zinfandel or malbec, well kept, could last 20 years."

Rule 4: Aging isn't linear. Wine ages on a bell curve, Eddy explains, with the top of the curve representing the peak flavor. After that peak – often more of a plateau – the wine doesn't suddenly turn to vinegar, but its flavor and bouquet will begin to decline, he says.

So what does that mean for the bottle you've been saving for a special occasion? Tyler advocates drinking it within a decade.

"To be safe, instead of 15 years, aim for seven or eight or even 10," he says.

Rule 5: No matter how ageable the wine, improper storage can send it to an early, vinegary grave. For those without Tyler's 450-bottle storage capacity, investing in a wine fridge (18-bottle models sell for under $200) will help protect your liquid assets. Another option is renting a temperature-controlled space: ABC's Newberry Road location rents vaults with room for 12 cases for $16 a month. At the very least, store bottles in an area that isn't prone to major temperature fluctuations, Eddy says.

"The roller-coaster of changing temperatures prematurely ages a wine," he says.

How can you tell when you've waited too long? Color changes – muddy brown for reds, amber for whites – are one indication. Another is an acidic or astringent taste. When you look at the bottle, check to see if the amount of wine is lower than normal. If the wine is down to the shoulder, that means oxygen has seeped in: Not a good sign. But even that rule has exceptions, namely Tyler's 1945 Pétrus those many Christmases ago.

"We could tell that it had oxidized. It had lost a good ounce of wine," Tyler says. "We thought it was probably shot, over the hill. But instead, it was an amazing bottle of wine."

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