Here is a thought to ponder: just because it was true doesn’t mean it is true. Take, for instance, the commonly held beliefs about aging wine and the often-repeated philosophy that a good wine improves with age. For centuries, the maxim was quaffed without question—and aging wine was a tried and true process for reaching liquid nirvana. However, over the last few decades it has become less and less true. A trend that will likely persist as oenologists refine the winemaking process and change the very architecture of contemporary wines.
Modern wines are best consumed as soon as they’re bottled. In today’s cellar, aging wine will only improve the flavor of about 5% of white wines. Likewise, only a nominal percentage of red wines are rendered superior once they gain some bottle longevity—no more than 10%.
Winemakers are marketing professionals who understand the needs of the contemporary consumer—aka “Generation Microwave.” Generation M has no interest in aging wine. Even if it had the cellar, they are too impatient for years of racking up bottles and waiting until they are ready to pour. Generation Microwave wants to stop at the wine shop on the drive home and pick up a bottle that is already a perfect pair with the rotisserie chicken, garlic string beans and bruschetta from the ready-made section at the gourmet grocery store.
To please contemporary wine drinkers means giving them wines that are ready to drink the day they are purchased. But first, winemakers had to consider the history of how wine has always been aged.
How Wine Ages
There are several components that can be used as an indication of a specific wine’s capacity to age well. A high level of phenols (most notably tannins) indicate that a red wine is more likely to mature over time. If your goal is to cellar a few white wines for later consumption, then look for bottles with a high level of extract and acidity.
During the aging process, tannins and acidity serve many of the same roles in aging red and white wines, respectively. Both have preservative qualities and both act as the catalyst for the natural esterification process that changes the flavor of wine as it ages, altering the perception of acidity and enhancing the aromas that develop into a mature wine’s bouquet.
Aging White Wine
White wine, which can be made from red grapes, is kept clear by minimizing the role of the grape skin. However, it’s the skins that add tannins and phenol compounds; reduce these components, and the wine stays whiter and matures quicker, too. Oak cask aging also introduces phenols into white wine, but in less significant amounts that don’t impact the wine’s necessity to age.
Aging Red Wine
Red wines, on the other hand, are allowed considerable and extended contact with the grape skins. As a result, the young wine is loaded with tannins, which, at first, are harsh, bitter elements. As the wine ages, these elements soften and the flavors merge with other components. The tannins fade in color, too. Young reds are boldly colored, some nearly black. Once aged, reds can take on more muted, even bronzy tones.
Aging Wine is Old-School, Modern Vintages are Ready to Drink
Equal parts artisan and scientist, winemakers at today’s vineyards are micro-adjusting the density of the tannin and the pH levels both red and white wines. The result is an end to aging wine. One no longer need cellar the average bottle and wait while it reaches its prime. When you see it racked at your favorite wine shop its prime has already begun.
Although some wines, such as Grand Cru Bordeaux and vintage ports can still benefit from proper cellaring, most contemporary wines are designed for immediate consumption, with whatever aging is required already done in the winery. Modern vintners release to market only what they believe is ready for consumption, earning rave reviews from magazines and, more importantly, Generation M.