Do We Really Need to Age Wine Once We Bring it Home?

The question of whether or not to age a wine further once you have purchased it and brought it home is a question that many wine lovers have, and it’s a very good question.  Most of the wine we buy today (about 90% or more) is meant to be consumed young while it’s still fresh.  This number is probably much higher than it used to be for reasons that I will address in this post.  That leaves a very small percentage (less than 10%) that will benefit from ageing.  In modern times, wines that need ageing are produced with that in mind by the winemakers.

Times have changed in the production and consumption of wine.  Not too long ago, in the history of winemaking, grapes were generally picked earlier than they are now.  The trend now is for longer “hang times” (the length of time the grape is allowed to stay on the vine) which allows for better ripeness in, not only the sugars of the grapes, but the tannins as well.  With the shorter hang times of the past, the tannins in red wines were much more harsh and needed a long time to soften and integrate more into the wine.  Tannins in red wine act as a preservative so the long time required for ageing is not too detrimental to the overall health of the wine, provided it is cellared properly.

Which brings us to another significant change.  In the “old country” (ie: somewhere in Europe), many years ago, before refridgeration and central heating,  houses were much cooler than they are today.  Most, probably, had some sort of a cold storage room where they kept perishables and where they could keep wine as well, if they didn’t already have a wine cellar.  It was much easier for people to keep a few bottles to mature for several years at a cool enough temperature so the wine wouldn’t deteriorate and spoil.

Nowadays, houses aren’t configured that way.  Our homes tend to be warm and dry and much of the time space is at a premium.  Most of us don’t have cold cellars.  A lucky few may have invested in a high-tech, climate-controlled wine cellar, but the majority of us have no such luxury.  In fact, there are many people who keep their wine in racks in their kitchens, which is probably the worst place possible for storing wine.  The massive heat fluctuations can do serious damage to a good bottle of wine.   I’ve also heard of  a woman, who called into Konrad Ejbich’s show on CBC Radio, who keeps her bottle of 10 year old Barolo in a frequently used drawer in her kitchen.  Needless to say that fine bottle of wine probably isn’t so fine anymore.

Our attitudes and lifestyles have also changed dramatically.  We live in a fast-paced, technology-driven society where we can pretty much get whatever we want in a relatively short period of time.  Most people don’t have the patience to wait several years while the bottle of wine they bought yesterday reaches an optimal drinking age.  I’m willing to bet that most wine purchased at the LCBO is consumed within 2 or 3 days, if that long.

Perhaps as a reaction to all the relatively recent changes in the world, winemakers are purposely  making wines that are more approachable when young.  As I mentioned before, grapes are being left on the vine longer allowing for greater physiological (a.k.a. phenolic) ripeness.  Physiological ripeness refers not only to the sugar and acid levels in the grape, but also to the degree of colouring of the skins, the texture of the pulp, the ripeness of the seeds and stems, and the taste of the grapes.  Physiological ripeness, is extremely important to the quality of the tannins because it is in the skins, stems, and pips (seeds) that the tannins are found.  With physiological ripeness the “green” and harsh tannins will be replaced by softer and more approachable tannins, reducing the need for many years of cellaring.

Modern winemaking techniques have also been developed to aid in the production of wines meant for earlier drinking.  One such technique is called “micro-oxygenation”, and involves slowly adding oxygen to fully fermented wine in a tank.  Its purpose is to change the phenolic structure of the wine in a way similar to ageing it in an oak barrel.  It produces a wine that is softer with better integrated tannins, and thus, ready to drink sooner.

So, to get back to our question, “Do we really need to age wine once we bring it home?”:  the answer is that most of the time you don’t need to and a lot of the time you shouldn’t (some wines just don’t age well).  However, there are some precious bottles of fermented grape juice that will definitely benefit from a few to several more years in a cool, dark place, free from vibration.  A very basic list of these is:

  • * the more expensive Bordeaux from top names
  • * Burgundies from top vineyards and good producers
  • * reds from the Piedmont region in Italy, such as Barolos
  • * reds from the Tuscany region in Italy, such as Brunello di Montalcino and some Super Tuscans
  • * German Rieslings from the Mosel or the Rheingau
  • * some Chenin Blancs from the Loire, such as Vouvray

There are many others.  Please note that there can be huge differences in vintages.  Some vintages will mature more quickly than others.  You’ll need to ask a few questions when buying that more expensive bottle of wine to find out if you should age it and for how long.

Remember that just because a wine is meant to drink young does not mean that it is not a wine of quality.  There are many early drinking wines that are of excellent quality and thoroughly pleasurable to drink.

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