The only way to learn about how wine ages is to drink a lot of wine at various stages of the aging process. There are four ways to get started with this new hobby. To learn more about aging wine, I consulted with Vanessa Conlin, Master of Wine and Head of Wine at Wine Access and Michael Peltier, Senior Fine Wine Specialist at Millesima.
Option 1: Buy wine matured at the winery
Notice how I said “matured” not “aged?” Early in our conversation, Peltier was quick to point out this very important difference between wine that is maturing vs wine that is aging. Wine ages in the bottle, wine matures in other vessels (like oak barrels) before bottling.
Comparing some wines at different stages of maturation can provide you with an affordable primer on the basics of how wine changes as it gets exposed to small amounts of oxygen.
Conlin recommends exploring Rioja wines from Spain for this method of learning about “aged” wine. Unlike in the US, European countries with ancient wine-production histories have a lot of rules describing how grapes can be grown, how they can be made into wine, and they also assign quality labels to everything that earns them.
In the case of the Rioja region in Spain, there are specific requirements and names for wines of different maturity, in addition to specifications for growing and harvesting. The vast majority of red wine from Rioja (Rioja Tinto) is made from a grape called Tempranillo. The vast majority of white wine from Rioja (Rioja Blanco) is made from a grape called Viura.
Crianza: “Crianzas are wines which are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in oak barrels. For white wines, the minimum barrel ageing period is 6 months.”
Reserva: “These are meticulously selected wines with a minimum ageing between oak barrels and the bottle of three years, of which at least one has to be in barrels, followed and complemented by a minimum 6 months’ ageing in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is 2 years, with at least 6 months in barrels.”
Gran Reserva: “These are wines of great vintages that have been painstakingly aged for a total of sixty months with at least two years in oak barrels and two years in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum ageing period is 4 years, with at least 6 months in barrels.”
Generic (or Joven): “This category guarantees the origin and vintage of wine. They are usually wines in their first or second year, which keep their primary freshness and fruit. This category may also include other wines that do not fit into the categories of Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, if they have been subjected to an ageing process that is not certified by the Control Board.”
Rioja Bodegas to Try
As I’m not an expert on Rioja wine, it’s a bit difficult for me to recommend one specific bodega where you should explore the differences between these styles (bodegas are what we call wineries in Spain). Here is a list of bodegas with a good reputation, at a variety of price points. All bodegas listed here offer Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva (sometimes more choices, too). My recommendation is to buy one of each from a single bodega and compare them. If you love the experience, try more. If you don’t… try Option 2.
Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE)
Crianza. Retails around $15. "Medium intensity of maroon colour. In nose, we can find aromas of wild fruits, liquorice together with vanillas, toffees and cocoa from the American oak barrels. Soft entrance in mouth with rounded tanins [sic] and a slightly acidic end which leads to a long and fruity aftertaste."
Reserva. Retails around $25. "Medium intensity ruby in colour with a pink hint at the rim. The nose shows good aromatic intensity with aromas of fresh wild berries and liquorice which are typical of wines made from Tempranillo grapes. These are well integrated with the sweet spice aromas from the barrel ageing process. The palate is soft and marked by silky tannins and a long, fruity and youthful finish."
Gran Reserva. Retails around $30. "Ruby red in colour, the wine shows a youthful hint at the rim. The nose reveals interesting and complex aromas of ripe fruits in perfect balance with spices, toffee, roasted coffee and balsamic notes. The palate is soft with silky tannins, good, fresh acidity and a long finish with a balsamic aftertaste."
Crianza. Retails around $25. "Cherry red color. On the nose, its fruity character stands out with notes of strawberry and banana, memories, vanilla, cedar wood, leaf litter, along with balsamic notes. On the palate it is enveloping and dense with powerful but round tannins."
Reserva. Retails around $30. "On the nose it is very pleasant, subtle and elegant, with class, very complex, hints of fine woods, ripe fruit, coffee, ... On the palate it is oily, round, unctuous and well structured, juicy tannin. In retro-olfaction, spicy nuances and notes of ripe black fruit appear."
Gran Reserva. Retails around $45. "Ruby red with a very high robe [may be a translation error]. On the nose it is intense and concentrated, warm and mature, with hints of chocolate and cocoa. The barrel is shown with nuances of toasted wood, peat, charcoal, bitumen, spicy tones and black fruit also appear. In the mouth it is powerful, with nerve and well structured, expression of the wines of great vintages."
Crianza. Retails around $14. "Cherry-red in colour with violet notes. On the nose there is a good balance between ripe fruit and quality wood. This balance is also present in the mouth where wood, alcohol and tannin combine with spicy vanilla resulting from a touch of delicate oak. A long finish with a pronounced back-taste."
Reserva. Retails around $15. "Ruby in colour with a tawny rim. On the nose, notes of sweet vanilla, dry flowers and tobacco against a subtle mineral background. In the mouth the full red berry flavours are underlined by toasted oak tannins, though these are not drying. It is silky, sweet and balanced with a finish of red fruit jam and seductive oak notes."
Gran Reserva. Retails around $35. “Deep ruby. Pungent bouquet of high-toned cherry, tobacco and peppery spices, along with deeper suggestions of vanilla and dark chocolate. Sappy, spicy and focused on the palate, offering bitter cherry, chewing tobacco and rose pastille flavors and a jolt of zesty acidity. Stretches out on a long, gently tannic finish that’s sharpened by a late note of cracked pepper. This wild wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks, then aged for a year in tank followed by two years in a combination of French and American oak barrels.” –Josh Raynolds
Crianza. Retails around $13. "Dark-cherry red with a purple rim, it is a clean, bright wine with aromas of ripe red fruit set against a spicy background, adorned with light notes liquorice. Tasty, fresh and fruity in the mouth, with a sweet, persistent finish."
Reserva. Retails around $16. "Medium intensity, dark-cherry red, with a brick rim evincing barrel ageing Ripe black fruit, toffee and balsamic aromas with a light mineral touch. Well-structured in the mouth. Fresh, with a silky, elegant mouthfeel and a long, persistent finish."
Gran Reserva. Retails around $24. "Bright, ruby-red with an orange trim denoting long ageing in barrels and in the bottle. Complex aromas of long ageing, with the presence of ripe, preserved fruit and delicate spicy vanilla and cinnamon hints set against a mineral background. Elegant in the mouth, with a velvety, well-balanced mouthfeel and a long, fresh, persistent finish."
Crianza. Retails around $13. "To the eye, it has a middle layer of bright cherry colour. The aroma of very fine aging (vanilla, coconut, roasted coffee) is combined with notes of ripe red berries and liquorice. The palate is wide and elegant, with a clean aftertaste, persistent and of pleasant memory."
Reserva. Retails around $20. "Classic ruby red with hints of a light brick red colour. Very complex and intense aroma, with fine scents of aging which are assembled perfectly: vanilla, spices and herbs. Very ripe fruit recollections appear. In the palate, it is a finely balanced wine, with a polished and elegant body, with a long and pleasant aftertaste."
Gran Reserva. Retails around $30. "Having a beautiful brick red ruby colour half layer which precedes an aromatic explosion with notes of aging (vanilla, roasted coffee, spices ...), ripe fruit (raisins, caramel) and very subtle notes of bottle aging: leather, dry leaves, tobacco, etc. As the wine opens out, the aromas become more intense. In the palate a smooth and silky, perfectly assembled taste is emphasized. It is very prolonged, with a sensation reminiscent of velvet and a pleasing aftertaste."
Crianza. Retails around $20. "COLOUR. Ruby red, Covered in layer. It shows violet hues from his youth. SMELL. Complex. Spicy and with balsamic touches. Ripe fruits, dairy, mild spices, truffle and mineral notes. TASTE. Wide and balanced entry. It is tasty, meaty and full of fruity nuances and noble aging."
Reserva. Retails around $25. "COLOUR. Intense red, tile iridescence, it is conceived as an aging wine. SMELL. Complex and rich aromas linked to the terroir. Inhale the aromas of raspberries, savoring the effusion of strong chocolate. TASTE. Well assimilated old age. Ripe fruits on a toasted background."
Gran Reserva. Retails around $40. "COLOUR. Intense red, great layer, tile reflections, very bright. SMELL. From the fruit to more elaborate aromas from the barrel characterized by spices and tobacco. Good combination of toasted tones with those of the variety. In retro-nasal aroma, intense, elegant and of great aromatic persistence. TASTE. Balanced, round, what it anticipates on the nose, it meets seriously on the palate. Full mouthfeel, pleasant touch and great persistence."
Back vintages are wines that are not the current release. A retailer who has older wine in inventory may have purchased more than it was able to sell through before the new release came out. It may keep these back vintages indefinitely until they sell out (a great opportunity for you to try older wine!), but I wouldn’t expect to see something more than 5 years old kicking around.
How to Get Started with Back Vintages
Step 1: Pick a grape or a region that you’re familiar with and that you already enjoy.
Step 2: Buy up to three vintages of the same wine from a single producer. Choose vintages one or two years apart depending on how granular you’re interested in getting.
Want to explore aged French wine?
In consultation with Millesima, I recommend building your own vertical of wine from Château Peyfaures (a vertical is three or more vintages of the same wine). This Bordeaux Superior is affordable for Bordeaux wines, classically-styled, and is organic. There are two verticals you can choose from this Château: the Grand Vin and the Dame de Coeur (slightly more expensive).
Want to explore aged California wine from small producers?
I recommend shopping at the wine stores of The California Wine Club and Gold Medal Wine Club (no membership required to shop their stores). Each carry an excellent selection of wineries and often have back vintages in limited stock for wines at a variety of price points.
Another way to experience high-quality aged wine is to do so at fine dining establishments who specialize in filling and maintaining elaborate wine cellars. This is the most expensive way to enjoy aged wine, but you get a few bonuses with that extra money that you won’t get when you buy aged wine on your own.
It’s worth a side note here: great fine dining restaurants have sommeliers on staff. It used to be that this was what we expected sommeliers to do — serve great wine in great restaurants. These days sommeliers have all kinds of jobs which include sourcing wine for and even owning wine stores and wine clubs. Social media has made it so sommeliers are “the only real wine experts” that the public can trust. I still think critics are trustworthy, too. Regardless, I bring this up because while you may think of a somm as a wine expert, their expertise within the restaurant setting is what they were trained for.
A second side note: not all “wine program managers” or “wine waiters” at restaurants are sommeliers. Sommelier is an official job title granted by an educational system. It is not a generic term to refer to a wine expert. There are levels of sommeliers, too. Advanced Sommeliers and Master Sommeliers represent the most educated among them.
Back to buying aged wine in restaurants... If you’re at a restaurant with a serious wine program, they likely have an Advanced or Master Sommelier on staff. Odds are good that when you purchase an expensive aged wine in this setting, that’s who’s going to serve you. So, in addition to buying that perfectly cellared wine, you’re going to get a wine education (if you want it) about the wine you’ve purchased and its history.
You’re also going to get someone to professionally taste the wine to confirm it hasn’t gone bad — they won’t serve it to you if it isn’t in great condition, so this setting eliminates some of the risks associated with aged wine. The sommelier will treat the wine perfectly (properly decant, removing sediment and without damaging the delicate wine).
This takes time (new releases you buy now won't be ready to drink for at least five years) and often a sizable investment in wine that you plan to age, not to mention proper long-term storage.
Aged Wine Lover's Tip: Buy a Coravin
At the point where you’ve plunked down some serious cash to support your wine drinking hobby, a few hundred dollars more for a Coravin isn’t really a budgetary stretch — it’s a hedge against time for your investment and a gift of wine education for yourself.
If you don’t already know, Coravin is a wine preservation system which allows you to “access” a bottle of wine to taste a small amount without spoiling the wine through oxidation. Learn more in our Useful Wine Guide about Coravin.
Along the way, it’s worth taking notes — specifically BLICCA notes. Assess the characteristics at the time of purchase, and reassess as you go. You’ll start to see the process of how the wine changes over time and become better at predicting which wines you taste are worth aging and for how long. The best part about doing this yourself is that you’ll learn what *you* like to drink — aged wine vs newer wine — not what a critic or even a winemaker thinks you should like.
How did we do this before the Coravin was invented? It was expensive and required massive amounts of storage. Wine lovers would buy up to a case of one specific wine, wait a few years, and then crack one open each year until it was perfect for that wine lover’s preferences. Now, you can do this with two bottles (or more) — keep one for Coravin taste-testing until you’re in love with it, then open the remaining bottle(s) for consumption with your favorite winos.
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.