A matured wine at its peak is a little like love; when the right one comes along you’ll know it. The process of ageing fine wines can be seen as tantamount to diamond cutting in jewellery. The raw stone is cut and polished to create a one-of-a-kind piece.
The practice of wine ageing dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. While not all wines improve with ageing, those with good maturation potential improves quality and drinking pleasure when aged under the right conditions.
Months or even years of cellaring sees a large array of chemical and biochemical reactions. These elevate a wine from its post-fermentation state to the aroma and complex mouthfeel characteristics associated with the sensuous image of fine wines.
How to Age Wines
Several factors influence the maturation potential of a wine. Grape variety, vintage and style of winemaking, in addition to storage conditions and bottle size (the larger the bottle, the longer it takes to mature) can affect the quality of the end result.
Align Your Wine Ageing Efforts with Your Goals
Wine enthusiasts invest in icon wines for either financial or lifestyle gain.
If your goal is the latter, Van Deventer says the key to successful lifestyle wine investment is twofold: buy the right vintage from the right producer and then make sure that you store it under optimal conditions with ample patience before enjoying it.
Investment wines can be stored for up to 100 years in certain cases. However, they are extremely sensitive to variation in temperature, humidity, vibration and light and are best kept in a professional wine bank.
Learn About Wine Maturation Cycles
Nailing down the timing is a fine art that also involves personal taste. Wine can be aged for too long just as easily as it can be aged for too short a period of time.
“Some people prefer wines on the upward curve of the maturation cycle, while others prefer it at the peak. Others still prefer it on the downward, more mature stage,” says Bergkelder Vinoteque Wine Bank manager, Michael van Deventer.
How To Age Fine Wines
Take Note of Environmental Factors that Can Affect Wine Ageing
When it comes to wine storage, you have two formidable enemies. One of this is oxygen and the other is light.
To neutralise the threat of oxygen, wine should always be stored on its side to ensure the cork remains wet and no air enters the bottle. The cellar or wine cooler temperature should always be kept at a constant temperature of 12 to 16 degrees Celsius. This prevents expansion and contraction of the liquid in the bottle (another way air can enter the wine).
Humidity should also be kept as close to 75 per cent as possible. This will prevent the cork from shrinking and allowing air into the wine. As light degrades the tannins and speeds up oxidation, leading to premature ageing, wine has to be stored in a dark place.
Finally, always store your wine in an odour-free environment to ensure that no odours find their way into the wine. Van Deventer strongly recommends a high-end wine fridge or underground cellar. You can also make use of a reputable wine bank to achieve these ideal wine maturation conditions.
Which wines have the greatest maturation potential?
Pick Wines That Have the Greatest Maturation Potential
“As a general rule, the more expensive wines usually have good maturation potential, while most inexpensive wines do not,” says Van Deventer.
A wine that is holistically harmonious and healthy will mature well. By contrast, a bad wine will not. More specifically, the type of grape used as well as the acid or tannin level presents in a wine affect its maturation potential.
Tannin comes from the seeds, stems and skins of grapes. They are vital to long-term maturation of wine. The complexity of the wine’s flavour comes into greater balance as the tannins settle as sediment.
As a wine gradually matures over time, a sublime process unfolds that sees the acid and tannins soften. Red wines drop out sediment and become lighter in colour. Meanwhile, white wines gain richness and complexity and turn a darker, more golden complexity.
Simple fruit aromas blend into a more complex bouquet while strong fruity flavours change into a mix with more sophisticated savoury ones. Ultimately the wine reaches a point of harmony. From there, it exhibits the maximum amount of complexity, the most pleasing mouthfeel and softening of tannins.
Which Type of Wine is Best for Wine Ageing?
Different processes are at play with red, white and fortified wines:
Most red wines have a significant amount of tannins, owing to the grapes’ skins and stems from which it derives colour. This makes red wines ideal for wine ageing, some for up to 30 years.
It is however impossible to assign drinking windows to grape varieties, terrios and producers as there is no exact science when it comes to the shelf life of wine.
“In fact, different vintages of the same wine from the same producer will have different ageing potential,” says Van Deventer.
He explains that as red wine matures, the complex chemical reactions of its phenolic compounds cause harsh tannins to give way to a softer mouthfeel and the wine’s colour to lighten.
White wines and rosé wines have very little tannin as they do not come into contact with grape stems and skins. Therefore most whites and rosés don’t improve with age.
Still, while having a much shorter shelf life than reds, fine whites also improve with short- to medium-term cellaring. Therefore, white wines and rosé wines should not be consumed too young. It is usually the white wines with high acidity such as Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and dessert wines that have good maturation potential.
Although most wood-aged Ports and Sherries are bottled when ready for consumption, Vintage Ports and other bottle-aged Ports and Sherries do get better with additional ageing. For a hidden gem in this regard, look no further than South African Muscadels.
Preservation is bolstered by higher alcohol levels. Because they have been stabilised through barrel ageing, fortified wines offer great value when looking for wines with extra-long maturation potential.
How to know if your wines are ready to drink
How Do You Know When Your Wine is Ready to Drink?
“Wine is at its peak when there is a harmonious balance of aromas, flavours, and texture, when any oak flavours are fully integrated, and the tannins in red wine are soft and smooth”, says Van Deventer.
A useful indicator of a wine’s maturity is ullage. If the level drops to below the shoulder of the bottle, it can indicate one of two things: poor storage and leakage or probable maturity.
“The best (and only real tangible) indicator of a wine’s readiness for drinking lies in your enjoyment of it. It is best to have a case of one wine and open the bottles at different intervals to gauge your own preference,” Van Deventer advises.
What Do You Do When Your Wine is Ready to Drink?
The final step to indulging in the sensorial pleasure of your fine wine investment is implementing the correct serving technique. To avoid sediment in your glass, carefully remove the bottle from its horisontal storage position. Place it upright for a few hours before serving. Next, carefully decant the wine into a clean decanter so as to avoid disturbing the sediment.
Decanting separates the wine from the sediment and exposes younger wines to oxygen to bring out their aromas and flavours. Be careful with older, more delicate wines. Exposure to oxygen may cause them to deteriorate in the glass or decanter within hours.
Finally, bring out your finest glassware and taste how good life can be. One glass of wine won’t do it, but the right glass of wine will.