Why you shouldn't really be letting your wines age
Most people reading this probably do not have a struggle with whether or not they should let their wines age in the bottle. For most of us, a good wine is whatever didn’t come in a box but we should all be aware of wines that are supposed to get better with age. And there are reasons to age wine but anything the average joe is going to buy should probably just be consumed as it was meant to be.
It turns out that most wines, around 90 percent, should be consumed within a year. That number goes up to 99 percent, when considering wines that should be consumed within five years. The idea that wine gets better with age is both true and misleading. It would be more accurate to say that some wines get better with age. Others stay the same. Or go bad.
Yes, wine can spoil. An open wine bottle will start to oxidize within two days. Even the most novice of wine drinkers can taste this because the wine gets a bitter edge. Wines left too long will get brown, whites will darken, reds will lighten, and (generally speaking) the lighter the wine, the faster it goes bad. Decanting it and putting it in the fridge will help, but you should still drink it soon.
Even unopened bottles can spoil, depending on the bottling process. A bad cork, flawed fermenting, and poor storage can all render your wine undrinkable. If it smells like cabbage, mold, or anything a wine shouldn’t smell like – say, a farm – it’s spoiled. If it tastes like sauerkraut, it’s gone bad. And if the cork is trying to pop out of the wine before you even get the corkscrew going, you should probably just toss it.
There are a lot of factors that can affect a bottle or barrel of wine as it ages. The tannins in the young grape start out bitter but smooth with age but as oxygen seeps into the bottle, the tannins can be overwhelmed and the wine ruined. Temperature also affects the wine, as increases in temperature fuel the oxidation process. And if mold creeps in through the cork over time, your wine is done.
It turns out that being a winemaker (also known as a vintner) is a lot more complex than squashing grapes with your feet. The amount of tannins in a wine is controlled by how much time the would-be wine spends in contact with the skin, seeds, and stems of a grape. This is where those tannins live. While most grapes can be made into wine, not every variety of grape actually has the capacity to get better with age. And it’s not just the wines that age. How long the grapevines have been growing grapes. Older, established vineyards grow grapes that have a more refined flavor. Then you can start stomping on grapes.
Fermenting wine is first aged in oak barrels for between one and three years before bottling. Leaving it in the barrel for too long doesn’t make for a better wine, it just makes for an oaky one. Once in a bottle, its storage temperature and even the angle of the bottle can determine its flavor profile. Your favorite bottle of Two-Buck Chuck doesn’t go through all of this – hence its price.
There’s no need to go sniffing the corks of any wine you didn’t have to have insured.
If you want to show your appreciation for a good wine, tip your hat to the people who make sure wine is affordable for the rest of us while you’re tipping your glass.