BY JANE ANSON
A FEW YEARS ago, I went to a friend’s
house for dinner. He got out a bottle of
Bordeaux AOC ;;;; and asked me if it
would be ready to drink. It was ;; years
old, from a part of Bordeaux that is best
known for its easy-to-drink fresh
merlot wines that I would normally recommend opening
soon after bottling.
I did my best to be
optimistic (having a
wine writer for a friend
must get annoying),
but it was definitely
past its best. All that
plump fruit that would
have been so tasty when
young had faded away.
At the other end of the
spectrum, there are plenty of
times when we miss out on the best
bit of a wine’s life by opening it when it’s
too young, and experience a punch of primary fruit and chewy tannin that completely overwhelms everything else.
When this happens, we never get to enjoy
the more subtle, spicy flavors that can
develop with a little bottle age. I’ve done
this myself tons of times with wines from
Napa, where the plump fruit in the ;rst
few years is just so seductive that you can
forget how beautifully it softens and
deepens with a few years of bottle
age. The real question is, how
do we know which bottles
are worth holding on to?
It’s not an exact science,
although there are fac-
tors that can help.
Three big in;uences
Wines with higher
acidity (which generally means from cooler
climate regions or picked
early enough that the fruit
is not overripe) generally last
longer than ones with low acidity.
So do wines with reasonable levels of ripe
tannins, which are found in the seeds,
skins and stalks of all red grapes and add
structure to assist with aging ability.
Alcohol levels are a little less clear-cut.
Unlike tannin, high alcohol does not nec-
Which wines will improve with time?
FOR YOUR TABLE
essarily make a wine age well, particularly
if combined with low acidity.
The balance among these three things
will give you a good idea of how a wine is
going to perform over the next few years.
It’s why plenty of white wines taste better
with a bit of aging. You can con;dently
expect pretty much any sweet wine, such as
Sauternes, Tokay and most ports, to age
well. Some dry whites, like a good Sonoma
chardonnay or a Hunter Valley (Australia)
sémillon, and pretty much any riesling,
Loire chenin blanc or Rhône white, can
also age brilliantly, even if they also taste
great when they’re young.
This delicate balance of acidity, tannins and alcohol level is why plenty of
fresh, juicy reds, such as a sappy cabernet
franc from the Loire or a fresh gamay,
which you can find from all over
California, taste best when young. This is
also true for plenty of pinot noirs and merlots—even those from Burgundy, Oregon
or Bordeaux. The pleasure comes from the
light tannins and fresh fruit that make
Aged and ready to drink
Some producers make it easy for
wine lovers. Vintage Champagne, for
example, is held back until it is ready to
drink. A Rioja Gran Reserva is held back
for at least two years in oak barrels and
three years in bottle before being sold, in
theory developing the perfect amount of
leather and soft tobacco savory notes to
add complexity and interest to the fruit.
Similar built-in-aging techniques are used
by Ribera del Duero Reserva and Piedmont
and Tuscan Riservas.
Other regions—like the Napa Valley,
Bordeaux and Barossa—usually sell wines
when they are young and leave it entirely up
to the buyer to decide when to drink them.
In the end, the structure of a wine tells
you how well it will age. Whatever the
color or type, if you ;nd concentration,
restrained power and a fresh backbone of
acidity in a young wine, it is likely to give
you great pleasure over the years ahead. C
Jane Anson is a wine writer who lives in
If you’re interested in experimenting with
aging wine, you’ll ;nd plenty of reds,
whites and sparkling wines at your local
/SHU T T E R S T O C K