David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 9/30/2015:
Most people think that wine gets better with age. Funny quotes say things like, “Wine improves with age, I improve with wine.” Hollywood movies often have suave heros in tuxedos ordering old strange sounding wines. Take this quote from the 2014 Oscar award winning comedy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, “Do it—and bring a bottle of the Pouilly-Jouvet ’26 in an ice bucket with two glasses so we don’t have to drink the cat-piss they serve in the dining car.”
Quotes like these make us think that old wine is inherently better. That old wine is what people in the know prefer and that to be cool we should aspire to afford and drink the oldest wine we can find. But the truth is that 90%, maybe 95%, of all the wine in an average store is ready to drink the moment you bring it home. Any additional aging won’t benefit these wines and it could degrade the wine and lead to a less pleasurable experience.
So drink up. It’s not going to get any better. This is great news for all of us because most people don’t have a cellar and they don’t want to wait 5-10 years for a bottle of wine to become drinkable. Winemakers don’t want this either. They want us to buy wine and drink it.
However, some wines do benefit from aging. Knowing which ones they are means you are going to have to make the move from wine consumer to wine connoisseur. The reason some wines benefit from aging is rather simple – the chemical structure of an age worthy wine is such that the decay from time and exposure to oxygen is slowed in comparison to other wines. This doesn’t mean that winemakers alter the wine with additives, it just means that they are higher in natural preservatives than other wines. These preservatives are alcohol, sugars, acids and tannins. An example of this would a French sauvignon blanc, which is high in acid but low in sugar making it shelf stable for only 1-2 years. Compare this to a German riesling which is high in acid and sugar making it shelf stable for 5-8 years. Some very high quality rieslings can age for 10-35 years.
If you could find a wine that has high levels of alcohol, sugar, acid and tannin you’d have the perfect aging wine. If such a wine did exist it would be shelf stable but probably taste horrible. I don’t think a sweet, high alcohol, tannic and tart wine sounds yummy. At most, wines have just three of the four age enhancing characteristics. A well made Bordeaux or a fine Napa cabernet sauvignon have high tannin, high alcohol and high acidity giving it the potential for aging 5-15 years beyond its vintage date.
The vintage date is an important clue in assessing the quality of the wine in the bottle. The vintage can tell you how long the winemaker has kept the wine in the winery before release, and it can tell you how long the store has had it on the shelf. Generally you want to buy a wine that has spent the least amount of time in transit from the winery to you. This is because wine is sensitive to light, movement and temperature, all of which can damage and fault the liquid. If you have a wine that has the potential for aging you want to minimize handling as much as possible.
Finally, if you really want to become a wine connoisseur and participate in the hobby of aging wines you need to buy more than one bottle from a specific producer and vintage. I would suggest buying an entire case and then opening a bottle every six months to a year and keep good notes on how the wine is changing. Then, once you’ve determined that the wine is at its very best, invite some friends over and drink the remaining bottles.
For the rest of us, just go to the store, buy a wine that looks good to you and pairs well with your meal, take it home and drink it. Forget about aging. It’s perfect just as it is, right now.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He teaches wine classes mainly in the Duluth, MN area. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.