Aging Wine

Most wines will not keep well in your cellar for 20 years.
Aging Wine
Aged wine might be coming back. (Dario Lo Presti/Shutterstock)
2/27/2024
Updated:
2/29/2024
0:00

Twenty years ago, one of the questions I got asked most was, “How long do you think this wine will age before I drink it?”

That was then. For about the past two decades, almost no one has asked me. The only reason I can give for this is that people didn’t really care about aging wine, which appears to be reflected in the way most red wines have been made since the mid-1990s. (Very few white wines are made to be aged.)

So I was taken aback recently when someone asked, “Will this wine age?” The question seems to be making a comeback. And a few more wines are being made to be aged.

This subject is fascinating in view of the fact that for centuries, the best wines were known to improve for years in the bottle, and the phrase “age like fine wine” has come into the language as a reference to greatness in maturity. We then went through a period during which aging wine was not considered to be an issue.

This subject is extremely complex and hard to answer simply. I could always answer by asking back, “How long are you talking about keeping a bottle of wine in the cellar?” If the query came from someone who wanted to lay away a case or two for a child who was recently born, for the child’s 21st birthday, then the answer was: You’re on your own.

With the exception of some very rare wines, I know of few red wines made today that I'd feel comfortable suggesting can be kept that long and still be drinkable.

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The one exception is a vintage port from Portugal. It’s a noble English tradition to lay away a pipe of Port (about 100 gallons) for a son or daughter upon their birth.

That’s a lot of wine, especially for port. A hundred gallons of port makes about 500 bottles of wine! On the plus side, however, vintage port is one of the longest-lived of wines. Dry red table wine is another story.

Some great Bordeaux can go as long as 20 years, but even as great as some Burgundies are, it’s questionable whether most of them would be great past about a decade. (The few classic old Burgundies that do make it to 50 years and still show amazing traits are what collectors of wine pray for every time they pull the cork on an old Burgundy. It happens all too rarely.)

Oddly enough, one of the most age-worthy red wines is made from the oft-disparaged petite sirah. But one reason we age them as long as we do is that they can be frightfully tannic when young.

Top winemakers suggest that the key element that allows a wine to age is not overt fruit or a slug of oak, but balance. A balance of all elements, acid and tannins included, is essential for a wine to age.

A wine with huge amounts of fruit but without the structure to hold that fruit is likely to be dead in just a few years.

Of the wines in my cellar that have aged the longest, most are Italian. Barolo and Barbaresco, in particular, show the characteristics that age well. When they are young, good ones generally have the fruit (roses, cherries, tar) that indicates the intensity of the nebbiolo grape along with strong tannins and acid that need decades to smooth out.

We had a bottle of a great 1990 Chianti recently, and it was already beginning to fade, so 20 years seems to be the limit for such wines.

Finally, a wine tasting good when it’s young is no guarantee it will taste great with age. Indeed, some of the most appealing young wines begin to decline very soon after release. Best suggestion: Drink most reds when they are two to three years old.

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To find out more about Sonoma County resident Dan Berger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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