Getting to know aged wine

Part I — Getting to Know Aged Wine

Aged Wine Fundamentals — What is aged wine? Is wine better with age?

In Part I of this guide:

Other parts of this guide:

What is aged wine?

Aging starts when the wine goes in the bottle, so all bottled wine is aged wine and all wine is aged in the bottle. Prior to bottling, a wine is said to be maturing, not aging. Many people consider a wine as aged when it is at least 5 years past the year on the bottle.

Very old wine bottles Photo by Ice Tea on Unsplash A bottle of wine Photo by Mauro Lima on Unsplash

What is the year on the bottle?

The year on the bottle is not the wine’s release date. It references the year the grapes were grown and harvested and is properly called a vintage.

Wine is typically released on an annual basis. Wineries may choose to release wines as early as the Spring following harvest and as late as 10 years after harvest. When to release depends on multiple factors, including the grapes in the wine and the wine region. White wines and rosé are often released within a year of the harvest vintage. Red wines are often released 2-3 years after the harvest vintage.

How aged is that wine? I like to sort it into four groups:

Back Vintages

Vintage + 3-5 Years

Lightly Aged

Vintage + 5-10 Years

Aged Wine

Vintage + 10-20 Years

Very Old Wine

Vintage + 20+ Years

What happens to wine as it ages?

As wine ages, it undergoes chemical changes. These changes affect different characteristics in the wine like smoothness of tannins, the color of the wine (which takes on browner hues over time), and the flavors which shift from fruity to spiced.

For more thorough answers to questions like “how does wine age?” and “what does aged wine taste like?” I recommend these terrific resources:

Old bottles of wine Photo by Michael Heintz on Unsplash

Does wine get better with age?

If you hear someone say “aged wine is better,” there are probably a few good reasons for it:

  • Aged wine is typically more expensive and many people believe anything more expensive is better than its cheaper counterparts.
  • Aged wine is smoother (particularly in red wine), so people who don’t like “chewy” or “grippy” tannins that coat your tongue and make your mouth pucker prefer aged wine.
  • Aged wine is often more complex, so people who like to really think about what their wine smells and tastes like often appreciate aged wine.
  • Aged wine flavors are different from young wine flavors and some people prefer aged wine flavors to those of young wine.
  • Some cultures place a higher value on aged wine than Americans tend to.

My experience tells me aged wine is an acquired taste. Most wine professionals who aren’t snobs will tell you that you should always drink what you like, and if you don’t like the way aged wine tastes then, no, aged wine is not better.

Cultural Preference for Aged Wine

Something I’ve noticed in my wine adventures is that Europeans, particularly the French and Italians, have a strong culture developed around aged wine. It’s easy to say, ah well, they’ve been making wine forever, of course they have a strong interest in it! But California has been producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon since the 1970s, surely 50 years is enough time for us to develop a reverence for old wine, no?

I asked Michael Peltier, Senior Fine Wine Specialist at Millesima, why so few wine drinkers in the US are interested in aged wine in comparison with France (both Michael and his employer are French). His answer was surprisingly insightful.

In France, for example, when you’re growing up, aged wine is everywhere, so you’re exposed to it early in your wine drinking experience. In the US, young wine drinkers pick up very young wines from the grocery store or liquor store, not aged wine. By the time we (Americans) have enough money to afford aged wine, most of us haven’t developed a taste for it.

How long can wine age?

Technically you can age wine forever by simply not opening the bottle; in other words, wine does not stop aging. People are still trading wines from WWII-era France (though I imagine they have no intention of drinking them). The Interwebs are filled with stories of ancient wines being discovered, like the Speyer wine bottle (I’m sure no one will drink that) and 170-year old Champagne found at the bottom of the ocean.

Realistically, there is something we call a drinking window. These aging times convey when the experience of drinking any given wine is pleasurable. Outside that drinking window, you could say a wine has gone bad. As with everything related to wine, the drinking window for any given wine is highly variable.

The Speyer Wine Bottle Speyer Wine Bottle
By Immanuel Giel - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

Two Rules of Thumb for Aging Wine

Most inexpensive wine is not intended for aging. Wine that you didn’t purchase from a winery or a serious wine store should be consumed within a year or two of when it was released because that was what it was made for. Same goes for sparkling wine and Non-Vintage Champagne (NV).

Fine wine is sometimes made for aging, but not always. One of my favorite wineries sheepishly evades answering my aging-related questions because they make their wine to be consumed young or with a little bit of age on it (up to 10 years). Their wine is most definitely fine, but their winemaker prioritizes the characteristics of young wine produced with minimal intervention over those which would favor cellaring for more than 10 years.

Here are some additional useful guidelines to consider, in order of importance (and there are exceptions to all of them):

If the wine in question can be properly cellared for aging and is not NV Champagne, Rosé, or costs less than $25, you have some research to do before you can decide how long to hold it (Part II of this guide).

Fun fact: The larger the bottle, the longer you can age a wine. If you know a wine is ageworthy, a larger bottle can slow the aging process (a smaller surface area of wine is exposed to oxygen inside the bottle) and let a wine develop even more. For a Napa Cabernet, a magnum can add 5 years of aging potential, a double magnum can add 10 years of aging potential, and an Imperial (6L) offers incredibly long aging potential.

Which wines age well?

You might have asked yourself, does red wine get better with age? What about aged white wine? Not to sound like a broken record, but the answer is highly subjective.

Wine Folly offers quick guidance on grapes and aging windows. It’s worth noting these are heavily generalized and are not specific to any wine region or vintage. A Cabernet Sauvignon from an inexpensive producer will not age as well as one from Napa Valley.

Red Wine Aging Chart from Wine Folly

Red Wine Aging Chart (Best Practices)

White Wine Aging Chart from Wine Folly

White Wine Aging Chart (Best Practices)

Want to learn more about the characteristics wine that make it ageworthy?
Try this great guide from Wine Folly which expands on these aging charts.

Jessyca Frederick

Guide by: Jessyca Frederick

Inspired by frequent questions from friends and family about different wines and wine practices, Jessyca writes Useful Wine Guides so that people she doesn’t know might benefit from her knowledge and desire to share information, too.