How long should wine age, and what happens when it does?
The answer to the first part of the question is simple but not easy: how long a wine should age depends on the wine.
Most wine is ready to drink when released and unlikely to improve with age. Some wines, however, improve with years in the bottle. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, and Barbaresco reds can benefit from 20-plus years in bottle. Age-worthy whites such as chardonnay from Burgundy and chenin blanc can age 15 years, riesling 20-plus years.
If you fret because your actuarial table suggests you won’t be around that long after your purchase, know many such bottles are not offered for sale for up to half of the aging needed to approach their peak.
Aging only affects small parts of wine, but those small parts make all the difference. In broad terms, wine includes four elements: around 85 percent is water, nine to 16 percent is alcohol, less than one percent is acidity, and the tiny remaining percentage is “phenolic compounds.” Water, alcohol, and acidity are not significantly affected by age. Phenols—which include tannin, color pigments, flavor compounds, and traces of many other things—evolve. Two-thirds of phenols come from seeds and stems, one-third from skins.
Wine is a living thing from vine to consumption. In the passage of time, tannin, color pigments, and flavor compounds continue to interact with each other. Some bind together, gain weight, and fall to the bottom of the bottle as sediment. As this happens, the wine evolves and becomes more complex.
With age, harsh reds become softer as tannins evolve and color changes from red to brick, allowing the non-changing acidity to brighten the color. White wines change from pale gold to a richer yellow gold. For both reds and whites, at some point everything comes together and the wine hits is best drinking peak.
White wines, with less organic material, hit their peak sooner than reds, but all age-worthy wines reach a pinnacle and begin a slow decline as the wine continues to evolve. Do not panic. A great bottle of wine past its peak is still a great bottle of wine.
And the wine you purchased at the store today and plan to pair with dinner tonight can be a great bottle of wine, too. Especially if you enjoy it.
Last round: Wine and calculus do not mix. Never drink and derive.