Humans have appreciated the benefits of wine aging since the days of the ancient Greeks, who produced straw wine, capable of aging due to its high sugar content. The early Romans prized Falernian and Surrentine wines because they could be stored for decades. The Bible even mentions the superiority of aged wine in Luke 5:39, which says, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
Wine tastes better with age because of a complex chemical reaction occurring among sugars, acids and substances known as phenolic compounds. In time, this chemical reaction can affect the taste of wine in a way that gives it a pleasing flavor. The chemical reaction can also change the color and aroma of the spirit, in addition to altering the way the wine feels in the mouth. Examples of wines with high phenol levels are Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah.
How does wine taste better with age? One group of phenolic compound – tannins – has particular importance in determining how wine tastes after aging. Tannins, found in the stems, seeds and skins of the grape, gives wine its dry texture – they are what give a drinker of red wine that dried-out feeling afterward.
You might ask, “Do all wines taste better with age?” Actually, no.
Both white wine and red wine contain tannins, but red wine contains significantly more. White wine gets a small amount of tannins from the grapes and picks up more from being aged in wooden barrels. White wine also has natural acidity that helps improve its flavor over time. Wines with a low pH, such as Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, are more capable of tasting better with age than are less acidic wines.
Tannins are a natural preservative, capable of keeping a bottle of wine palatable for 40 years or longer. When a wine is young, its tannins give it a bitter and astringent flavor. In time, the tannins dissipate and cause the body of the wine to develop its own “bouquet,” or aroma and essence. The bouquet improves over time, imparting a smooth, rich flavor without the bitterness of a younger wine.
Tannins alone do not make wine taste better with age – temperature is important to the proper aging of wine. Wine is delicate and perishable. It begins to oxidize when exposed to warm temperatures. This means the wine molecules take on extra oxygen, become unstable, and begin to break down. Oxidization causes wine to age and become undrinkable prematurely.
Thus, a wine storage facility must maintain consistently cool temperatures and consistent humidity levels to make wine taste better with age. For best aging, keep wine at temperatures between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 10 to 13 degrees Celsius.
Humidity must be just right to make wine age at the proper rate. Too much humidity causes mold to accumulate, especially around the cork. Too little humidity causes the cork to crumble, which allows oxygen to enter the bottle and cause oxidation.
Aging wine properly allows it time to develop a smooth, full flavor that enhances the experience of drinking wine. Talk to your favorite wine dealer to learn more about aging wines.