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On Aging Wine
Why We Age Wine
We well recall the late-summer day when, while visiting a new (and ultimately undistinguished) winery, we heard one of the pourers tell a customer "Oh, yes, this wine will reward aging; it ought to be about ready by Thanksgiving!" OK. But more realistically . . .
For a long time after wine was discovered, aging it was almost impossible because there were no containers available that were both non-reactive and sealable against air. Wines were typically drunk quite young, lest they "turn" (go to vinegar). With the advent of the glass bottle and then the cork stopper, that changed. Aging became not only possible, but highly desirable, because the wine-making processes of yore, antedating our modern understandings of biochemistry, tended to produce wines, especially the reds, that were very rough drinking when young (highly tannic, for one thing), and not only wanted but effectively needed years of age to achieve good drinking. Thence arose the custom of the "wine cellar", an area (usually an actual cellar, though sometimes a handy cave) with good storage qualities for wine: dark, quiet, damp, and steady at a cool temperature. Wines were laid down to be drunk as much as decades later, often by the next generation after those that laid them down.
Today, wine makers can make wines that are eminently approachable even in their youth. Mind, that is not to say that all wines today are so made, especially in those parts of the world (typically the more rural areas of Europe) where they tend to stick to older methods. Such wines can definitely benefit from aging, and for that matter so can some made in more modern ways. But the fraction of modern wines for which aging is an actual benefit (as opposed to their merely being able to withstand aging without deterioration) is, by expert opinion, probably not high.
How to Estimate Aging Potential
In general, the higher the acidity of a wine, the longer it will withstand aging. (Note that withstanding aging and improving with aging are not synonomous.) Typically, red wines, with their greater share of tannins, are the candidates for aging (because such wines will improve more as they age and the tannins are altered to flavor elements, through processes not yet at all well understood), though that is not equally so of all types.
Some whites also do well with aging, notably Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay—though by no means every example of each type. Also, as wine writer Dan Berger has noted, "As a white wine ages, its fruit fades, and what you get in return is complexity, which some people don't understand."
When in doubt, look up the particular type, or, better, the exact wine. See if aging is recommended, and, if so, how much. User comments on forums like CellarTracker can yield ideas and advice for a given wine.
How Best to Age Wine
The wine drinker who wants to age wine properly is often hard put to it. Fewer and fewer houses are made with true cellars these days, and even true cellars are nowadays rarely cool, damp, and dark, owing to the presence of furnaces, and, often, the desire to make them into more living space.
For those who want to try, the essential features of a suitable space are as set forth above: dark (light energy accelerates the biochemical processes); quiet (not so much for noise as such, but to avoid rattling or jiggling of the resting bottles); damp (to keep the corks well expanded: in theory, the contact with the wine itself—which is why we store wine bottles horizontally—will keep the cork moist and expanded, but a dry exterior can lead to excess oxygenation anyway); and, perhaps above all, a steady and cool temperature (which is why underground locations work so well). The ideal cellar temperature is widely thought to be 50°F to 55°F.
The effects of higher temperatures, say in the low 70s, have recently been examined and found not to be so terrible after all; again resorting to Wikipedia, "Wine can be stored at temperatures as high as 69°F (21°C) without long-term negative effect. Professor Cornelius Ough of the University of California, Davis believes that wine can be exposed to temperatures as high as 120°F (49°C) for a few hours and not be damaged." But also: "Dramatic temperature swings (such as repeated transferring a wine from a warm room to a cool refrigerator) can also cause adverse chemical reactions in the wine that may lead to a variety of wine faults."
Finally, while we know that higher temperatures simply accelerate the effects of age on wines, we can't effectively shorten the desired period by keeping them warmer, because the rate of aging negatively affects the quality of the age effects. In short, it takes what it takes, and cookin' it don't help.
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