Fine wine leaves you with something pleasant but ordinary wine just leaves.
Life is too short to drink bad (or even just ordinary) wine and to appreciate the difference you first need to be well acquainted with both; just like true appreciation of the difference between a Bentley Continental GT and a Chrysler 300C only comes with an experience of both.
Too many birthday cards lining stationery and book store shelves further the misconception that wine, like the person celebrating another trip around the sun, always gets better with age or that all aged wines are better than younger varieties.
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but the run of the mill wine you bought on special at the local bottle store is not going to metamorphose into an elegant classic, no matter how long you leave it in the wine cooler.
Destination Manager for Nederburg Wines, Kate Jackson says ageing wine does not necessarily improve or worsen it.
In fact, experts say only five to ten per cent of wine produced worldwide improves after one year and only one per cent enhances after five to ten years.
We asked Kate why some wines age well, while others don’t:
“The ability of a wine to improve with age is influenced by many factors including the grape varietal, vintage, viticultural practice, region and the winemaking style – was it made with the intention of ageing?
And then, even if all these factors align for the perfect product – how you treat that bottle will also greatly influence what happens to the wine in it.”
She says correct storage conditions of wine are critical. A relatively constant, cool temperature of 14 degrees Celsius, sufficient humidity of 70% – to keep the cork from drying out but not so much that the label rots – as well as a dark space, free of vibrations.
As wine ages, complex chemical reactions involving wine’s sugars, acids and phenolic compounds – such as tannins – can alter the aroma, colour, mouthfeel and taste of the wine in a way that may be more pleasing to the taster.
Focusing on two varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc – Kate gives valuable insight into what happens to wines when we age them:
Wine Colour and Tannin
Youthful Cabernet Sauvignons have a dreadful astringency and high tannin but this is also one of the key traits that allow them to age well. Over time, those big, bitter tannins will polymerise, creating long chains with each other and causing them to feel smoother and less harsh.
Tannin also fixes the colour in red wines; as they soften, tannins lose their grip on the colour pigments and an inky, dark purple will begin to appear orange at the edges and eventually turn brown.
Although the total amount of acid is more or less constant throughout a wine’s lifetime, the perceived acidity may change as acid bonds with the alcohol to produce “esters”.
These make the wine taste less acidic while also introducing new aromas to the wine. However, if left too long, the wine may eventually age to a point where heightened perceived acidity returns as the tannins and fruit become less noticeable again.
Wine Flavours and Aromas
In young Cabernet Sauvignons we taste the primary flavours, like blackcurrant, plum and green pepper.
We may also notice some secondary notes associated with specific winemaking techniques like the vanilla or toasty flavours of oak.
One of the most visible processes in evolving wine is slow oxidation and colour is the most obvious indicator of this.
As white wines age, they often evolve from pale lemon or golden to amber and even brown. Simply put, phenolics turn brown when exposed to oxygen – similar to apples turning brown when you cut and expose the white flesh turns brown when exposed to air. Just as lemon juice or sugar can help prevent an apple from turning brown, acid and high sugar levels slow down the oxidising process in wines.
The perceived acidity in Chenin Blanc changes exactly the same as in the case of Cabernet Sauvignon and should not be left longer than recommended or the perceived acidity will increase again.
Wine Flavours and Aromas
When Chenin Blanc wines are young, we taste their primary flavours like pineapple, citrus and green apple.
We may also pick up on some secondary notes like the vanilla flavour of oak or buttery nuances from malolactic fermentation that are linked to the particular winemaking techniques employed.
“When wines age, we start speaking about tertiary notes or flavours that come from development,” Kate says.
This could mean young, bold notions of fresh fruit that become gradually more subdued and reminiscent of dried fruit, such as prunes. Other flavours, previously hidden by bold primary notes come to the fore, like leather, tobacco, mushroom and earth.
In wine, nothing is ever static. Wine ages because acids and alcohol react to form new compounds while other compounds can dissolve, only to fuse again in another combination.
These processes happen constantly and at different rates and so every time you open a bottle, you catch the wine at another stage of its development with new and different nuances.
Wine suitable for ageing
“If you look at the line-ups of wines receiving fantastic prices at the Cape Fine Wine and Rare Wine Auctions, you will see a lot of Cabernet and cab-based blends as well as Chenin Blanc,” says Kate.
Both these varietals have incredible longevity and age-ability when stored under the correct conditions, which is why they fetch these high prices.
“However, not all Cabernets and Chenins are created equal and the easy-drinking 2018 Cab you picked up at your local supermarket for under R70 is probably not going to develop into anything better despite ten years stored in a top of the range wine fridge,” she adds.
Delving into specifics of what makes a wine age well is beyond the scope of this article so we will explore this aspect in more detail in the near future.
That said, Kate says tow good wines to invest in at the moment are Nederburg II Centuries Cabernet Sauvignon and Nederburg Anchorman Chenin Blanc.
Those who have been following our blog posts would by now have noticed an emphasis on the importance of a high-quality wine cooler to store wines.
Kate agrees: “I would recommend and a good quality wine cooler as you are able to store wines correctly at the right temperature – that perfect temperature that you can control – and mostly to ensure longevity in the wines, especially those high-end red investment wines.”