Aging wine has always been seen as a crucial step in the enjoyment of wine. Connoisseurs would store wine in a cellar for numerous years, so that the grapes would continue to ripen and when they eventually decided to drink it, they could truly appreciate the unique delights of that bottle. Recently however there has been some speculation about whether you should age wine at all.
Modern winemaking practices have improved the production process and with these changes, people are starting to question the need for cellaring wine. Is it still necessary to store your bottles for several years or can you pour yourself a glass after purchase and still enjoy the same taste?
Traditionally, aging wine was seen as an investment. Bottles of wine that had been stored for several years developed richer flavours and consequently increased in monetary value. Some modern wine experts however have recently commented saying there might not be as great a return as we might have originally hoped.
Let’s start by talking about the modern developments in winemaking.
Green harvests are now a popular practise. Rather than letting large crops full of grapes develop, green harvesting involves removing immature grapes at an earlier stage allowing the rest of the vine to receive more of the nutrients. Crop thinning gives grapes their best chance of ripening, hence improving their quality. The extra energy from the crop allows them to develop faster. Modern winemakers have changed their practices in the vineyard, also adopting organic and eco-friendly methods. Getting rid of artificial fertilisers and focussing on natural substances has helped improve the purity of the wine.
Aside from the change in harvesting, an increased attention to winemaking processes has also led to improved wine quality. Winemakers have turned their attention to better fermentation and cellaring techniques. The introduction of oak aging, as opposed to steel tanks, increases the wine’s exposure to oxygen which in turn decreases the tannins.
Pump over systems enable you to extract tannins, and increase the flow of oxygen into the wine. Cold soaking allows you to extract the colour and flavours of the wine without extracting the tannins. Modern winemakers have also switched from using cork bottle tops to screw caps. Screw caps protect the wine once bottled from excess oxygen, allowing it to stay fresher for longer. Several improvements have been made to winemaking and this focus on production has led to richer colours and higher alcohol levels in the wine.
What are tannins?
In order to truly understand why modern winemaking practises have made such a difference to the taste that we no longer require aging, we need to look at tannins and what they are.
Tannins are one of the reasons you need to age your wine, as they have a significant impact on a wine’s taste. They are molecules that come from the stems and skins of the grapes. Until the seed matures they make wine taste dry and bitter. You can control their taste by oxidising the tannins or controlling how long the grape juice is in contact with the skin.
Exposing tannins to less oxygen or increasing the length of time the skin is in contact with the juice will produce a bitter taste for a young wine, making aging necessary in order to transform its flavour. Changing how wine is made – for example using a pump over system to remove tannins – will help alter the taste so it can be consumed right away.
Of course, there are some wines that will always require aging but it’s safe to say modern wine production is decreasing the need for cellaring. If there are some sceptics out there who are unsure about cracking open a bottle immediately, storing wine probably won’t do your bottles any harm, but it may no longer be necessary. You can enjoy your wine a lot sooner and if you’re not receiving any extra benefit, it makes sense not to wait.
What wines require aging?
Most modern wines no longer require aging but there are of course a few exceptions. Vintage ports and whites that haven’t been through malolactic fermentation will require some aging in order to truly appreciate their flavours. These include your fruitier and crisper white wines, for example your Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs and Muscats. Some of your reds may still reward aging too – many Bordeaux wines will develop more character over time.
There will always be some exceptions to the rule and many may argue that storing wine won’t hurt its taste. While that may be true in some cases, there are a lot of examples in which you don’t have to wait for your wine. Barolo is an example of a wine which has a much finer taste at a younger age.
If you wanted to age your wine, five years would be the recommended term. Any length after that and you are prolonging the wait for no real purpose.
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