Wines that have been allowed to age can be both temperamental, and inconsistent. You can spend 15 years watching a bottle with a ‘not-yet-boiling-pot-of-water’ focus, only to find that when you open it, it treats you to 15 minutes of beauty and then fades into detritus. And, that is, assuming you’ve taken all the necessary precautions by aging it in the right environment, free of temperature’s mood swings and the vagaries of humidity, and transporting it from cellar to glass with a Shaolin steadiness to keep the sediment at bay. Just picturing that journey is enough to make casual wine drinkers renounce their titles and grab beer instead, whether out of caution for the annoyance of such a pursuit, or of the pedantic, laughably ritualistic way that it makes one look when all they really want is to respect the big hand of father time.
Luckily, tasting wine that has been aged gracefully makes a far more convincing argument for respecting the process than I ever could. It’s for that reason that I ask you to reserve your judgement on the seemingly hilarious, obsessive nature of those who’ve dipped their tongues in the fountain of youth until you too have found yourself neurotically deciding whether it’s the ‘right time’ to open a bottle, let alone deciding if you’ll decant it, what to eat with it, or who to invite and make complicit in the whole dirty act.
As wine ages, a number of molecular changes occur. Tannins polymerize into long form amino acid chains, intensifying volatile aromatic compounds and, also, creating brand new ones. Simply put, the texture and mouthfeel of the wine becomes increasingly pleasant, and the flavour becomes more complex.
I find it helpful to imagine this transition like the move from spring to fall. Young wines are spring. They typically will have a bright, fresh fruit and floral demeanour, and while not always cheery (in fact, some of the greatest contenders to age for a long time will appear rough and inaccessible), they always tend to display one, clear picture of themselves. Wines that have been allowed to age begin to head towards the ‘fall’ camp. The flavours generally become more savoury, with those fresh fruits turning to cooked, dried, or preserved. You’ll start to find flavours one often associates with the forest. Petrichor, mushroom, truffle — many describe the experience as baby-fat being shed.
This shedding is what many vignerons believe to be an essential transition for the wine to truly represent its terroir. Greg Harrington, Master Sommelier and winemaker at Gramercy Cellars once stated this case to me as we tasted his young ‘Deuce’ Syrah from Walla Walla, Washington: “It doesn’t quite have that green olive, smoked meat quality yet, but it will. It always does.”
Inherent in the way that a winemaker will anticipate the direction their wine will travel in is the assumption that this journey is all a part of the vision they had when they raised it from berry to bottle. Deferring to what is generally centuries of accumulated grape growing and winemaking experience seems rather obvious to me, and is perhaps the greatest argument for why any of us should care enough to make our own efforts to try our hand at aging some of the wines we buy. Doing so will require a bit of preparation.
To start, imagine the general image of a winemakers’ cellar, and attempt to recreate this as closely as possible. These are places with healthy humidity, low temperatures, and the placidity and darkness of the night sky. If you have a basement, you are well set. If not, consider investing in a wine fridge. To help with the humidity, a small bowl of water can be placed near your bottles.
Most of all, it’s important to be realistic about what you are hoping to get out of the process. Many will start aging wine due to a special occasion, whether it’s a bottle they were gifted at a wedding, or one purchased at the birth of a child to be opened 18 years later. While both fine and thoughtful, an enormous majority of wine is simply not made to age (especially not for 18+ years), not to mention that the bottle you’re aging could have any number of things go wrong along the way. To avoid heartache, err on the side of caution. There are plenty of bottles that will improve significantly in 2-5 years time, and consulting with your local wine shop to find them is a great way to start what will almost certainly be a soon overflowing basement of bottles you never realized you needed.
When the time comes to finally start opening them, (be advised, you will ruminate on this point often enough that I don’t need to make it any worse for you), it’s best to do so in the company of good food and good friends — two things that take an equal measure of patience, and which allow you to appreciate them all the more for it. If your wine is, say, younger than eight years, you can be fairly comfortable in popping corks, pouring glasses, and seeing how the wine changes as the night moves. If you are opening something older than this, it’s likely that you’ve already spent 8+ years contemplating the best (and safest) way to enjoy it, and so describing how to do it in detail now would almost surely be a banality. With that in mind, I will caution that any thread of neuroticism you find in yourself about how gentle and careful to be with the bottle is justified, especially after witnessing a friend’s 1982 Borgogno Barolo Reserva get unceremoniously dumped into a decanter by her husband, mixing the carefully settled sediment like a mushroom cloud and effectively ruining the bottle. Their marriage has since recovered, though I hope the ritual is beginning to explain itself.
I’d like to submit that in our general reluctance towards investment, whether that be investing our time, our space, or strictly our finances to undertake a project like aging wine, we lose track of the way that patience is an investment in ourselves. Perhaps the most impressive thing about actually tasting aged wine is that it sanitizes our often wicked impulse for immediacy — a desire to enjoy the obvious at the expense of the sublime. Wine takes time, and as our society continues careening off the cliffs of instant gratification at disheartening speeds, gastronomic pleasures like wine are one of the important remaining arenas in which we can exercise civility and patience, mirroring the pursuit of the vignerons who make it possible for us to even have this discussion. I for one believe we are in a golden age of wine enjoyment, and I’d love to see how patient we all can be in this window we’ve been gifted.
- Evan Watson