“Age,” wrote Francis Bacon, “appears to be best in four things: old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, old authors to read.”
A fine enough sentiment, but it turns out that most wines, including virtually all rosés and white table wines, peak in taste within a year of being bottled and after that begin a steady decline.
Predicting when these wines will be ready to drink is like betting on the outcome of a fixed fight: it’s the proverbial sure thing. But there is a relatively small number of wines, representing the high end of the market, that actually improve with age, and predicting a maturation date for them is neither as easy nor as precise.
Wine is nothing more than fermented grape juice. Unlike hard liquor, which is preserved by its high alcohol content, wine is perishable and loses freshness when it is exposed to air. Although some oxidation is good for some wines, increasing the wine’s complexity of taste and aroma, too much oxygen will spoil it.
Since wine continues to age in the bottle, where it is exposed to oxygen that either seeps through the cork or is present in the wine itself, the trick is letting it ripen to maturity but not beyond. A number of variables, including type of wine, variety of grape, vintage, and storage conditions, help experts guess when a wine’s time has come.
Red wines, such as cabernet sauvignon, red Bordeaux, red Burgundy, and pinot noir, have a higher fixed acidity than white wines and tend to age better because of it. Based on their experience with these types of grapes, vintners are able to estimate when wines made from them will come to full maturity in the bottle.
But the acidity of any one type of wine, cabernet sauvignon for instance, will vary from year to year and from vineyard to vineyard, depending on weather and soil conditions. In Europe, where the grape harvest is subject to quirky weather, wine-makers apply the term vintage to years when conditions have been especially favorable to grape growing.
Grapes from a vintage year, presumably, will have higher sugar and tannin contents than non-vintage grapes, and will therefore age better. In California, where the climate is very consistent, vintners are fond of saying that every year is a vintage year, but even there grapes and wines vary from year to year and the vintage label often signifies nothing more than a wine’s age.
Experienced wine makers admit that there is no surefire way to predict when a wine will be ready to drink. Some vintages,
heralded as masterpieces when they are bottled, rush headlong to maturity and become tired long before anyone expects. Others, like the 1794 Château Lafite, somehow survive their makers by more than a century.
Connoisseurs do know a few things that help them make well-informed. guesses. Small bottles have a larger cross-section-of-neck to volume-of-bottle ratio than large bottles, and since exposure to air ages wine, and since air enters a bottle through its cork, a half-bottle of wine will mature before a full-size bottle of the same wine.
Storage temperature is another important consideration. Wine is stored in cellars and not attics for the good reason that warmth accelerates the aging process. But too much cold will arrest the wine’s development. A temperature of between 55 degrees and 60 degrees Fahrenheit is considered optimal. The single most important factor, though, in predicting wine maturity accurately is experience.
Connoisseurs are able to predict when a wine will reach its peak of flavor by knowing its vineyard and the record of other wines from that vineyard. Based on a vineyard’s past performances, wine experts have been able to draw up charts that show when a wine will in all likelihood mature.
A chardonnay, for example, will improve for about three or four years, maintain its peak for a few more, and then decline. With a heavier, more tannic wine such as cabernet sauvignon, the general rule of thumb is six to fifteen years, depending, of course, on the growing and storage conditions.
Even the most astute student of wine will be caught off guard from time to time though, and some types of wine, such as claret, a deep red Bordeaux, simply defy precise forecasting. The best you can do with claret, experts advise, is wait ten to a hundred years before opening it, and maybe you will get lucky.