Does Wine Get Better With Age?
‘Old is gold’; the proverb runs since immemorial times. But does it stand true for everything? Certainly not! If we look around, we witness everything waning, debilitating and decomposing with the passage of time. Nothing escapes from the onslaughts of ruthless sickle of time. ‘For best taste use before expiry date’ is commonly suggested in almost all brands of drinks. But in the case of wine, we search for the date of manufacturing and not the expiry. But does wine really get better with age?
The hilarious glamour is - the older the wine, the tastier it is. The chronicles of mythology, legends, and the entire prose and verse are replete with the adoration and salutation for the so-acclaimed salubrious and soul-lulling taste of old wine.
The taste of sip after sip of aged wine makes the votary transcendent the barriers of all worries and tensions and transforms the mood into energetic and exuberant complexion. But before jumping on the side of the claim of better taste with aging, we must verify the veracity whether this is a time-tested conclusion or a mere fragile generalization.
Understanding Wine Varieties
Wine is an alcoholic beverage typically made from fermented grapes or other fermented fruits. All wines can be classified into five fundamental groups. Within each of them, there are hundreds of different grape varieties and also different winemaking styles. Yeast consumes the sugars in the must and converts it into ethanol, carbon dioxide, and heat.
Different varieties of grapes and strains of yeasts produce different types of wine. There are around six variants of wine: Red Wine, White Wine, Rose Wine, Fruit Wines, Mead (honey wine), Starch-based “wine” and wine-based products.
The wine has been produced for thousands of years. Over the course of human history, the wine has received its fair share of laudatory quotes, praise, almost even worship. It’s arguably the most beloved beverage in the world. Wine rises steeply above a mere “beverage” in the minds and hearts of the wine lovers.
Wine is an unusual beverage. It can sometimes have considerably storage life. Although wine only contains a few milligrams of preservatives to preserve it from oxidation, it sometimes appears as if the wine has the miraculous ability to hold back time, and last for centuries!
The aging of wine is, in theory, able to improve the quality of the wine. The ability of wine to age is influenced by many factors including grape variety, viticulture practices, winemaking style, wine region, and vintage. The way wine is stored after bottling can also influence how well wine ages and may require significant time and financial investment.
How Wines Age?
Wines are a solution of alcohol, acids, phenolic substances and elements that add flavor- this means the wine is complex and going through constant change. All components react to each other, connect and separate, break down, etc. Inside the closed system that is a bottle of wine, it is thought that one of the most important elements in the aging of wine is tannins.
These are phenolic compounds found in the seeds, stems, and skins of grapes, and have anti-fungal properties, which makes it bitter and astringent.
As time goes on, a small amount of oxygen enter the bottle and reacts with the tannins, which influence the chemical reactions inside. This process needs to be slow as if a large amount of oxygen seeps into the bottle at once, the particles in the wine will oxidize, and the flavor will suffer.
As tannins deal with oxygen, they start to make the wine feel different when sipped, until it will linger pleasantly in the mouth.
What Makes the Wine Age for More than Five Years?
Factors Influencing the Taste of Wine
The flavor of the wine is dominated by a combination of sugar and acids, but most importantly, by tannins. A surplus of tannins is the reason why younger wines tend to taste bitter. They actually bind with the proteins that absorb saliva, making mouth dry and chalky, imitating the effect of eating unripe mango or green banana.
Tannins are actually defensive compounds, they also act as a tenacious preservative, and they can make a bottle palatable for over a period of time.
Temperature changes also alter the characteristics of the wine. Wines are very sensitive to temperature, because of the high-temperature fuels oxidation, causing the wine to age prematurely and rendering it undrinkable. The optimal temperature to age wines is somewhere between 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also, humidity is also one important factor which determines the quality of the wine. Increased humidity leads to a build-up of mold around the cork, while decreased humidity causes the cork to crumble which allows the oxygen to sneak in. The humidity should be as close to 70% as possible.
It is believed that wines get better with age, but it is a widespread misconception that wine always improves with age. Aging transforms wine but does not categorically improve it or worsen it. Different wines age differently. Just like other drinks, wine is a perishable beverage and will slowly succumb to oxidation. This is where it may turn brown and taste like vinegar.
In fact, more than 90% of all the wines made around the world should be drunk within one year, and less than 1% of the world’s wines should be aged for five years or more. Wines change with age. Some get better, but most do not. The good news is that the 1 percent represents more than 350 million bottles of wine every vintage.
There are only a few exceptional grape varieties that have the potential to produce grapes with juices that possess truly dignified, maturing qualities. In broad terms, wines can be divided into three categories: those who lose quality over the time, those who maintain their quality during storage, and finally, those that really do improve when aged in the cellar or a wine cabinet for years. The first group is the largest by far, and they should never be bought with the intention of laying them down.
Some wines age wonderfully for 10 or 15 years. Others show improvement for a year or two and then stop developing further. Then there’s a very small group where no aging at all is ever going to do any good.
Fruitiness deteriorates rapidly, decreasing impressively after only half a year in the bottle. Due to the cost of wine storage, it is not economical to age cheap wines; moreover, many types of wine do not benefit from aging, regardless of their quality.
Winemakers know that very few people have a wine cellar where they can age wines. Plus, we live in a society of instant gratification. Because of this, a lot of wines are made to be consumed immediately.
Attempting to age these wines will wreck them, and when you uncork the bottle of “aged” wine that’s not meant to be aged, all you’ll smell is sour grapes!
Wines vary in the way they age; the one thing that is common among them all is that each wine has its own life cycle. White wines typically have a shorter lifespan than reds. But all wines, including reds, gradually will peak over time and then start to fade.
A newly bottled wine is called young, later after some aging characteristics become evident, the same wine might be called mature. If the wine is not drunk and left to set beyond its prime, one might refer to it as fallen-over. The words like young, mature, fallen-over give a good sense as to how wine goes about progressing through life.
Some wines are meant to be drunk young, others to bottle-age for decades- it all depends on how they are made. Certain wines need time to reach their peak, whereas others are made to be consumed fairly quickly. The wine improves for a period of time then it peaks in quality and then eventually declines.
With each passing year, the wine actually worsens instead of getting better. As the wine begins to decline it starts losing its characteristics that the winemakers wanted to express in making these wines.
Part of the problem is that some wine increases in value as it gets older. The public fails to grasp that the value only rises because of the wine’s increasing rarity, not its increasing quality. If a certain vintage wine has been deemed to have aging potential, collectors will gravitate towards it and deplete its inventory level on the open market. When this happens, it then becomes a simple issue of supply and demand; the fewer bottles, the higher the price.
The public is also misled by certain “collectors” that are not drinkers, but simply hoarders who sit on wines for speculation. This older-the-wine the better myth has partially been perpetuated by the wine industry itself, although not intentionally.
Wine changes as it ages. Just like bananas, some people like them barely ripe, mild and firm, and some like them fully ripe, pungent and soft. Most of the experts would agree that comparatively few wines actually taste “better” when aged more than five years past the vintage date.
Wine doesn’t necessarily fall-over overnight, but it will do so slowly over a certain period of time. A valuable wine that has taken 5 or 10 years to peak in quality will decline over several decades. Wine that has peaked in a matter of a few months may decay over two or three years.
Regardless, it is good to understand that: There comes a time in any wine’s life when it is begging to drink!
The point here is, you don’t have to judge wine by its age. While wines do get better with age, they can also get worse.
Ultimately, we fall in with the conclusion that the claim that taste of wine improves with the aging is a facile and fragile generalization. Whatsoever is produced, cultivated, processed, refined, preserved and made edible is perishable, gets decayed and decomposed and rotten, no matter it is grain or wine.
Of course, some varieties may stay longer with the better taste and some others may succumb early to deterioration. This journey from manufacturing to decomposition has to be completed even by the most enduring variety of great wine. It takes a hyperbola, i.e., vertically ascending and then descending path rather than horizontally increasingly linearly.
An impressive vintage may maintain its quality over several years due to its better refinement and may reach a plateau of robust quality; but in the end, it, too, cannot defy the course of time and has had to succumb to the destiny of all mortal things. Of course, it might have achieved its plateau of peak maturity, but its descent is inevitable, though may be slow and gentle. It may prolong its lascivious taste, but its deterioration is ineluctable.
So, does wine get better with age? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Some wines definitely benefit from aging. Others are better consumed young. But in the end, if you’re not a true connoisseur, perhaps you’ll never be able to tell those subtle differences between aged and young wine anyway.
The best thing to do is to drink whatever wine you enjoy best without worrying too much about aging – unless you’re a collector, of course!