What's Going on When Wine is Aging?
I have a gray hair. Ok, four. I spotted four glistening silver strands the other day in unforgiving light in a restroom to which I will never return. While on the phone making a hair appointment a nanosecond later, my thoughts turned to wine, as they often do, and I thought about me getting older versus wine getting older. Aging is celebrated in wine, but what exactly happens to it as it does so? The tally of my years was staring at me in the mirror; four gray hairs, a wrinkle or two, reading glasses, and afuller figure thanks to middle-aged metabolism. Is it so obvious for wine as well?
Wine is the only beverage that, once bottled, improves with age. But not all wine gets better. Some need to be consumed within a year or two; most rosés, all “nouveau” wines released within six months of harvest, jug wines, and almost all entry-level wines (under $20) are made to be consumed pretty quickly.
But many of the great wines improve after relaxing in the cellar a while, a few almost require it. Barolo, from Italy’s Piedmont region is the best example of wine that must age. A two year old will strip the enamel off your teeth while a 15 year old could have you considering an investment in several cases.
Surprisingly, little is known about what happens in the bottle as wine ages. We do know that chemical reactions cause polymers and phenolic particles (which are leeched out of the skins during red winemaking) to cling together into little solids called sediment. When these particles settle out of the wine and into the base of the bottle they take some of the bluish-red color from the wine, making it appear more brick-red with a faint brown halo around the upper edge of the pour which you can see when you tilt the glass against a white backdrop. This sediment is believed to be partially responsible for pulling out some of the more harsh tannins leading to a smoother mouthfeel; making way for the other flavors in the wine to shine.
It’s kind of like being at a party with that one crazy rowdy guy who, while fun, is a bit much so everyone looks forward to him inevitably passing out. The trick is getting him topass out at the right time.
Wine will age faster if you store it in warmer conditions, but it doesn’t age better. In fact, the slower a wine matures in the bottle, the more complex the flavor. The more tannic and heavy the wine the longer it can age. Bordeaux, Barolo, Barbaresco, and some mountain-grown California cabernet sauvignon can age up to 25 years comfortably. Merlot, pinot noir, Rioja, and syrah/shiraz can age on average 4-10 years, while grenache, gamay, and zinfandel might start to fade after 5-6 years. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules and vintage has an impact on a wine’s longevity, too.
Adding to the unpredictability of aging wine, there is a period when the wine “goes mute.” After bottling, any time from several months to a few years, the wine enters a phase in which it tastes like almost nothing. It’s enough to make a person cry. Ok, me cry. I cried. I’d held on to a bottle of Brunello for about 5 years and opened it with a spectacular dinner I’d prepared and the wine was just not there. It tasted like thinned pomegranate juice steeped with chalk. There is no scientific explanation for this behavior, sort of like there’s no real reason the rowdy party guy I mentioned earlier would sit down and cry on the couch before he passes out, but it happens. Unpredictably. and heartbreakingly.
White wine is also capable of aging and generally the best whites to age are those with the greatest acidity; Chablis, chenin blanc, and riesling being the sturdiest old-timers. But what little is known about the processes of red wine aging, even less in known about whites. They become a bit more brown as they age, or “honeyed” as some like to say, which is more of a flavor term than appearance. But that may also be an apt description for some whites whose acidity recedes to the background allowing fruit flavors to come forward- and since fruitiness tends to trick the tongue into thinking it’s tasting sweetness, “honeyed” makes sense.
I suppose the aging of wine isn’t too far afield from the aging of people. Sure it doesn’t sprout gray hair (except in the dankest of cellars) but it does undergo subtle, inner transformations that lead to greatness. Like wine, people are all so very different, maturing at different rates, going through moody phases, and settling out the rough edges of sediment. Aging isn’t so bad for us either, I guess.