The Wonderful World of Aging Wine

A question wine lovers ask when contemplating buying a bottle of red wine is: how will it age? Or, more applicable these days, will it age at all? Aging wine is an age old question.

There are various answers to this riddle and, in general today, I hesitate to suggest that any red wine is a candidate for aging. But parsing the question, how long are we talking about keeping a bottle of wine in the cellar?

Readers often write to me to say they’re hoping to lay away a case or two for a recently born child, for the child’s 21st birthday. That’s a noble tradition with origins in England. There, the idea is to lay away a pipe of Port (a pipe being a large cask equal to some 100 gallons or more, depending on your definition of a pipe).

That’s a lot of wine. A hundred gallons of port makes over 40 cases of wine! But vintage Port is one of the longest-lived of wines. At the least, 21 years is a short stay in the bottle. I still have some 1963s that are yet to reach full maturity!

Red table wine is another story, and especially recently. Most of the dry red wines we see on store shelves today are made for consumption in far less than 21 years. Indeed, even the best California Cabernet Sauvignons are best aged only eight to ten years; only the very best last 20.

And by “very best” I’m not referring to “most expensive.” In fact, some of the most expensive wines are best consumed young!

The same general rule applies to Bordeaux. Only First Growth Bordeaux will survive 20 or more years of aging; most other wines from that storied French region would drink best at 10 to 12 years aging. Some are best within five years of their vintage.

Burgundy and its non-French counterpart Pinot Noir are dicey as aging wines.  The way today’s California Zinfandels are being made, with 16% alcohols, I doubt seriously if they would be enjoyable after two decades.

Some California Petite Sirahs are fine aging between 15-20 years, but even here it’s best to try them at 10 to see how they are doing.

Advocates of Australian Shiraz say their best wines last 20 years, but again only the best do. Most will age only five or six years to be at their best.

The basic question here is: If you buy a red wine for its fruit, why risk losing that fruit by keeping it too long? Since most wine makers these days are making more and more wines to be consumed young, I’d not risk long aging in a cellar.

If you still want to age red wines, however, a few still reward long aging. The longest-aged red wines in my cellar are Italian. Barolo and Barbaresco in particular need years to blossom. When young, the good ones show the fruit (roses, cherries, tar, pitch, pepper) that indicates the intensity of the Nebbiolo grape. But there are strong tannins and acids that need decades to smooth out.

But here is a dilemma: Barolos only will age a long time if (a) they came from a great vintage, (b) they came from a great producer, and (c) the wines were cellared perfectly.

Getting all three conditions in one wine can be expensive. Wine lovers have driven the price for great Barolo from a great vintage to absurd heights, and putting in a perfectly designed, temperature-controlled wine cellar is likewise costly.

Moreover, those who have never tasted a mature Barolo might not know what Italian wine lovers see in this wine, which can be a challenge when young — tannic and astringent. So buying a case of a young Barolo for the cellar for aging without knowing what a great one ought to smell and taste like entails risks.

Another Italian wine that should age at least 10 years is top-quality Chianti. Choose from a highly regarded house and from a good vintage.

Finally, just because a wine tastes 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. Only two years after release, some red wines are so disappointing as to defy description.

Perhaps, all things considered, Port remains the last best aging wine for the 21st birthday of a recently born progeny.