Yes, you can drink old wine, but do it at your own risk; not all wine ages well. Wine is not your average drink. It may be the only beverage people buy not to drink, at least immediately.
There are lots of mysticism behind aging wine, all those dim-lit cellars, the musky smell of damp basements, and the unique aroma only a pile of dusty bottles can provide. Aging wine is a beautiful thing because unlike spirits or beer, it may get better with time if you know what you’re doing.
Old wine is not the same as aged wine. Any bottle of wine can be left forgotten in the attic — aged wine, on the other hand, is not ignored but cared for; it evolves and becomes tastier, and more intricately aromatic in time, and that takes skill and patience.
Here’s all you need to know about aging wine, which types of wine age best, and how long your grapes can last.
Why Does Wine Age So Well?
Wine is approximately 85% water, and somewhere between 11% and 15% alcohol. The remaining small percentage is what makes wine smell, feel, and taste like it does.
Imagine evaporating all the water and alcohol in a bottle of wine; you’d end up with what we call dry extract, a fine powder comprising pigments, tannins, flavonoids, acids, and sugars. That tiny percentage in wine makes it unique, and when it comes to wine aging, the more solids, the better.
While wine ages, all those alcohols and acids, aromatic compounds, and tannins bind and unbind, combine and recombine, and the aroma, flavors, and textures change.
A young red wine might smell of ripe berries and cherries, but as it ages, it will reveal mushroom, truffle, leather, and damp soil aromas, and that’s exciting!
Wine ages well because it’s complex; its molecules interact in time. In a way, wine is alive. It’s born, it matures, it decays and dies.
The Mortal Enemies of Wine
If you want to age a bottle of wine properly, you need to keep it away from its mortal enemies. Oxygen, heat, light, and movement can damage your wine and interrupt its gentle aging.
If oxygen finds its way into the bottle, it will oxidize its contents. Wine’s color turns from straw to orange, or from ruby red to brown, and the aroma dissipates. In contact with air, vinegar bacteria will do their job and effectively kill your wine, turning it into a very poor salad dressing.
Heat will speed up wine’s aging in a not-so-pleasant evolution, reducing its lifespan from years to a few months. Direct sunlight will ruin your wine in a phenomenon called light-struck — you don’t want your precious wine to be “destroyed” in a few hours.
Movement, even a subtle vibration, will accelerate the wine’s aging as well, so keep your wine collection in a cool, dark place away from radiators or anything that could cause vibration.
Can You Age White Wine?
White wine is almost always produced to be enjoyed young, and you should drink it as fresh as possible, up to three years if stored properly. There are a few white wines, though, that can age marvelously, again, because they have high amounts of dry extract.
Oak-aged Chardonnay, like the one from California or Burgundy, ages very well and can evolve for up to fifteen years or more. White wines from the French Rhone Valley age very well too and can unfold for decades.
Sweet white wines age very well since sugar slows down the aging process. These might be the most long-lived white wines on earth and don’t be surprised to taste a fantastic, sweet wine after a century.
A few other white wines age beautifully, white wines from the Spanish Rioja region, German Rieslings, and of course, fortified white wines like Sherry are some examples.
Can You Age Red Wine?
Red wine ages better than white because it has more pigments and tannins, the granular particles that cause a drying feeling in your palate. Of course, 90% of red wines are also designed to be enjoyed young and up to five years from harvest in the right storage conditions.
A few reds, though, are contemplative pieces worthy of any wine collection. Some reds, like the ones from France, Spain, Italy and the best examples from the New World, can be so concentrated they’re actually better enjoyed only after they turn ten years old. The best examples will unfold nicely for decades.
Old wine doesn’t necessarily taste better than young wine. It all depends on your preferences. If you enjoy fruit flavors and aromas, then young wine is for you. If you want to explore darker, earthier aromas, then you’ll find an aged bottle very pleasing.
How Long Can a Bottle of Wine Age?
The Speyer wine bottle, also known as the Römerwein, is at least 1,650 years old and dates back to the 4th century. The glass vessel was discovered in a Roman nobleman’s tomb in Germany. Is it drinkable? Perhaps we’ll never know.
A bottle of French Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1787 was sold at an auction in 1985, and an astounding 1775 Sherry was sold in 2001 for $43,500. Both were palatable.
The reality is few bottles age over fifty years. Every bottle of wine eventually withers and dies, not without giving its owner great pleasure. Wine collectors often buy at least a case of their favorite wines and enjoy a bottle every few years, effectively watching it evolve through time.
Once wine reaches its plateau, it starts to decay. The entire process can last half a century, although some wine bottles are still pretty enjoyable after eighty years.
Drink Wine, Young or Old, But Join The Party!
Buying a few bottles of fine wine to lay down is a fun hobby, and opening an aged bottle is definitely satisfactory, but at the end of the day, wine is meant to be drunk.
Young or old, wine is created to give pleasure and elevate dinner with friends and family. Yes, you can age your bottles for decades, but should you? As they say, like wine, we all get better with age.
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