Ageing with grace… How to I.D. and pick out an age worthy bottle of wine

In my last post I talked about what happens to wine as it ages, and some may read it and think that I do not favour aged wine.  NOT TRUE!  There are amazing age worthy bottles out there, that will offer up a sip of heaven if you are patient.  You just have to find them!

So you are out shopping and want to find a bottle that you can keep away for a special occasion 5+ years down the road.  What do you look for?

First of all, you have to enjoy savory characteristics in your wine.  For more info on why, and what happens to flavors in wine as it ages, see my post Some things are better with age… SOME

In order for a wine to age and develop well, it has to have specific structural components that ensure it A) Does not turn to Vinegar or B) Generally start to taste Gawd Awful.  Think of it like a well built building.  If it is made up of poor quality materials, that were not assembled correctly… it won’t last.

These structural components are as follows:

Acidity

Acidity preserves fresh flavors in the wine.  It is also responsible for making fruit flavors taste “Juicy” as it stimulates saliva production in your mouth.  Unfortunately over time acidity in wine decreases, causing wines to become ‘flat’ in taste.  Next thing you know things are going to be a little tasteless and flabby.  A wine that starts out with a high level of acid will better act to preserve juicy fruit flavors over time, than one with a lower level.  By the time you open it, you will still have something left to keep your mouth watering for more!

Tannin

In red wines, those with higher tannins tend to age better than those with lower tannins. Tannins come from contact to the pips, stems and skins of the grapes during winemaking, and can be smoothed, balanced or added through contact with oak.  Extended oak contact in a wine will impart new tannins of it’s own. A wine with well balanced tannins (where there is a balance between ‘grape tannin’ and ‘wood tannin’) will slowly “smooth out” over time as the tannins break down. These higher tannin wines when young will have a drying, tightening, and chalky affect on your gums.  Over time these break down and begin to literally fall out of the wine (which is why old wines usually have sediment).  The wine becomes smoother, more rounded and silky in texture.

Alcohol Level

Alcohol acts as a preservative, but can be volatile in non-fortified wines causing them to fall apart and turn into vinegar faster. Generally speaking, the lower the alcohol level in a wine the longer it will last.  When seeking out a wine for aging, check the alcohol level and look for one that has an ABV level below 13.5%. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but it is a great place to start. Despite the fact that higher alcohol can ruin normal still wines, fortified wines are perhaps the longest lived of all wines with 17-20% ABV.  These however are usually made with high balanced levels of all 4 of these structural components.

Residual Sugar

Sugar can also act as a preservative in some high alcohol fortified wines.  This component of a wine is often overlooked because aged dry wines are generally more commercially popular.  Reality is, the longest lived wines of the world are often sweet or dessert wines including Port, Sauternes and Riesling.

“That’s all great… but how do I know if I have a bottle that will all work out?!”

In order for a wine to age well, the above structural components must be balanced with one another.  You also have to be ok with mentally removing some of the fruit characteristics of the wine, as those are the flavors you will be left with.  This is one way that wine quality levels are assessed for ageability.  An acidic red wine, with high tannin and a vibrant array of fruit flavor, and some tiny savory characteristics, is going to age well, as none of the components are out of whack, or overly dominating the others.  If you taste a wine, and one component hits you over the head like a sack of bricks, it won’t get better with time.  This is a skill that frankly comes with practice and tasting many many wines.

Without tasting a wine it is hard to tell what structural components are in a wine unless you are very familiar with the variety and the producer.  This is why I recommend asking the professionals at the store.  Many wines that come into wine shops have been tasted by the staff, so do not be afraid to ask if someone in house had tried it and what their notes were on it.  Certain types of wine will be released onto market with these age worthy characteristics, but it is likely that you will have to hunt them down at a boutique store, and pay a bit of a premium – they will be some top notch bottles, that in time, with proper storage, will reward you.

Happy Hunting!

Cheers!

        – Kathryn

P.S. – Be sure to subscribe to get tips from my next post on proper storage for those ‘age-worthy’ bottles, or the ones you haven’t been able to get to yet.

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