January 20, 2012

Will this Wine Improve with Time?

That was exactly the question asked of me at an open-house party that my wife and I attended over the holidays.  To set the tone, the gentleman asking the question was a dead-ringer for Uncle Leo from Seinfeld.  Additionally, our friends recognize that I am fairly in tune to all things wine-related and on occasion like to experiment on me with something different.  I also happen to know that they purchase better bottles, so obviously there is little resistance on my part when offered a glass filled with a mysterious beverage.  

“Uncle Leo, let Tyler try a glass of your wine.” Our host shouted from across the room.

The operative word here is ‘your’, which at the time, I assumed to imply the old-timer stopped by the wine shop to purchase a special bottle for the party.  Nope, not the case, as I found out rather quickly; Uncle Leo crafts his own brew in the basement. 

Now I fancy myself a gentleman of sorts, and never criticise anyone that puts forth an honest effort, regardless of the subject.  Furthermore I never critique others for the wine that they choose to drink, though sometimes it can be difficult to control your facial expressions when caught off guard.  This was one of those times.  

By the way, why do short European men always get all puffed up when they are put on the defensive...

“You don’t like my wine, young man? I made it myself, you know.”

“Yes, I see that…” taking a precautionary step back. 

“This batch is not my best you know.  It’ll probably get better if I don’t drink it for a year or two.  What do you think?” 

Shit! If I say no, he’s gonna ask why.  “Ahh sure, why not?  I’m sure a little time won’t do it any harm.” 

By the end of the evening Uncle Leo was convinced that I was his nephew, we had pleasant conversations about topics ‘other than wine’, and managed to find equilibrium over a few mixed drinks.  On the way home my wife sarcastically summed up the whole event up with a single word – Nice!  And then went on to suggest that perhaps I could call and apologize the next day. 

The question asked by my retro-rerun friend was not completely out of place:  Will the wine improve with age?  And sarcasm aside, the answer is still no.  The reason however is a bit more complex.  Let us also clarify that nearly all wine available at the wine shop is meant for immediate consumption, and if kept it under reasonable storage conditions, it should remain drinkable for two, possibly even three years in better examples.  Beyond this timeframe and the composition of the contents will begin to breakdown resulting in a product that is strikingly similar to vinegar. 

Another very common mistake is to assume that because a wine is expensive, it must also be a candidate for long-term cellaring.  This is in fact not the case, and while most age-worthy wines are indeed costly by comparison, there are many pricey bottles that will not improve with time: a high-end Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or an unoaked Chardonnay from anywhere (except perhaps some Chablis) is best consumed during its vibrant youth, as are the majority of wine products produced here in North America where soaring production costs also dictate higher price tags.  Of course exceptions to the rules will always exist and this subject would be rather mundane without variation, but in general, the following list will help you determine if a wine is worth cellaring: 

  Reds to hold
    Better Cabernet Sauvignon based blends                  
    Classed Growth Bordeaux        
    Grand & Premier Cru Burgundy  
    Better Rhône Syrah & blends                              
    Amarone Classico                               
    Barbaresco Riserva                 
    Brunello di Montalcino 
    Premium Australian Shiraz                   

  Whites to hold
    Quality German Riesling
    Grand & better Premier Cru Burgundy
    Sweet wines and Botrytized
    Better Chenin Blanc from Loire
    White Hermitage

  Fortified Wine to hold
    Vintage Port

  Sparkling Wine
    High-end Champagne (as a matter of personal taste)

Logically, the next question is: for how long does one hold these bottles?  Between 3 and 5 years is normally more than adequate, though some products will continue to improve in the bottle and remain drinkable for well over a decade.  Factors that influence a wine’s ability to improve with age are grape variety, oak influence, residual sugar, and winemaking technique.  The thicker-skinned grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Tannat, and Syrah/Shiraz, to list a few, all contain higher amounts of the natural phenol compound known as tannin.  You will recall that leather is created by the process of tanning cowhide.  And while the same production method is not used to make wine, we can certainly draw a parallel between the two.  The bitterness of the grape pips will also contribute to the tannic structure of a wine as will the stems if they are left attached during the crush.  Should the winemaker elect to press the grape clusters whole, the resultant wine will naturally adopt a higher degree of astringency. 

As you research your next wine purchase, consider if the winemaker has used French, American, or Slovenian oak barrels.  Each will impart different flavours, aromas, and phenolic compounds to the wine. Are the barrels new or previously used?  New oak has a much greater influence than that which is on its second or third run.  Perhaps the wine was crafted in stainless steel vats with oak chips added to create the illusion of wood influence.  New French oak barrels can cost as much as $1000 each.  These factors will not only affect the style and ageing potential of a given wine, but its retail price as well.

If a winemaker allows or elects to stop the fermentation early, the wine produced will retain a degree of natural sweetness.  Residual sugar also acts as a preservative and we recognize one example of this style as late harvest or Spätlese Riesling.  In better years, the same effect is also found in the wines of Vouvray, a product of the Chenin Blanc grape in France’s Loire ValleyBotrytis affected wines such as Sauternes, Barsac, and Tokay, plus those labelled Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) will all age indefinitely. Well-made Icewine/Eiswein also has the potential for long-term cellaring.

Reduced time spent in contact with the grape skins (maceration) after the crush means that white wine does not inherit the same degree of phenolic compounds as its red counterpart. And while oak influence will add tannin structure to the wine, it is the fruit's natural acidity that acts as the preserving agent in this case.

Storing your best bottles will not preserve the wine in its present state: With additional age, the colour component of red wine, along with any bitter tannins will slowly begin to fade.  At the same time, the fresh fruit flavours diminish to take on more of a dried component – think fresh raspberries versus dried cranberries. Additionally, new earth-driven aromas such as mushrooms and forest floor may develop adding an element of complexity to the equation.  White wine becomes deeper in colour, developing honeyed and butterscotch notes along with softer tropical flavours such as mango and papaya over citrus zest.  In some examples, solvent or petrol aromas evolve which force any freshness to take a back seat.  For many of us, this just screams excitement and discovery, but if you typically gravitate toward jammy Cali fruit-bombs and crisp, clean whites, ‘tasting with time’ may take a little practice and getting used to.

Can I suggest that you stop by your local wine shop to purchase an example of both an older red and white wine?  It might cost you a little extra but I’ll bet the lasting effect will be worth significantly more.  



  1. Ha ha ha. You and Uncle Leo. Too funny.

  2. Love the layout of your site, and you definitely have a good list of wines that would take well to aging. I enjoyed your story of tasting someone's wine, I have some friends who are planning on doing the same and are excited for me to try it. Hopefully, I can mask my emotions.

    Thanks for viewing my site, I look forward to reading more of yours.


  3. LOL. I've always wanted to meet "Uncle Leo". Great write-up!


Choose Anonymous if you're not sure what to select under 'Comment As'

Some background...

My photo
Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine