Aging, as it relates to wine, happens at two critical points: during the winemaking process, at my house, and when it’s in the bottle, at your house. Aging, as it relates to me personally, apparently happens on a continuous basis. And I age at my house, your house, and everywhere in-between.
Speaking of which, it’s my birthday. Which mostly means that this song is running through my head on a continuous loop. As long as I can remember, every year, I wake up on my birthday, and I hear Paul McCartney. What does it mean? I think it might mean that I like the Beatles. I looked it up in an online dream dictionary, but I’m sure you’d be surprised to know (as I was) that Paul McCartney isn’t a valid search term.
We’ve touched on aging briefly here and here, but since it’s on my mind today, I thought it would be worthwhile to do a longer post. Specifically, I’m going to talk about what it means for us as winemakers, and what it means for you as a consumer.
Like most* winemakers and drinkers, I have a special place in my heart for the movies Sideways and Bottle Shock. I think Sideways gets the honor of “top movie wine quote”, and the quote I have in mind is perfect for this post:
I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today, it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.
Let’s tackle the first topic area: aging wine at my house, also know as barrel aging. Wine can be barrel fermented in oak (which we don’t do), or wine can be placed in oak or infused with oak after fermentation (which we do). As we’ve discussed, after fermentation is completed, the wine is racked several times. At this stage, the wine is green (in taste, not in color), and needs to settle for a period of time. This form of aging can be done in neutral containers such as glass carboys, like we’re using, or it can be done in new wood barrels, which are not neutral, and influence the developing wine. Ideally, we would age our wine in barrels, but they are large and expensive, and maybe not practical now that we live in an apartment.
The impact of the type of wood used for the barrel (French, American, or Eastern European) and the degree of “toast” on the barrel can affect the tannin levels of the wine and the aggressiveness of the wood flavor imparted into the final product. Suffice to say, barrels are the subject of great discussion and experimentation among winemakers throughout the world. Much like dirt.
Regardless, as it rests, the wine goes through subtle changes, resulting in greater complexity and a softening of the harsh flavors present at the end of fermentation. If you are aging in oak, this is the point in the process where a vanilla finish is imparted in a red wine. We use oak spirals to capture some oak-driven characteristics for Abeille, which will be discussed in more detail in a later post. We could also technically oak our unnamed white wine. White wines that are matured in oak, or infused with oak, have a darker color and can have characteristics of coconut, cinnamon, and clove. We haven’t decided yet.
And now on to the second topic: aging wine at your house, also known as bottle aging. Not all wines are meant to be aged at your house. Large, commercial wineries with high turnover typically produce fruit-forward, low acid wines intended to be consumed within one or two years of harvest. Varietals like Beaujolais Nouveau are intended to be consumed nearly immediately. So, what type of wine is cellar-worthy? A wine that is (1) high-alcohol, (2) high-acidity, (3) tannic, and/or (4) high in sugar is probably a pretty good candidate. A common misconception is that you can’t really age white wine, which isn’t true. A Spätlese from Germany can be cellared for years, and often improves over time, as do many white dessert wines, like Sauternes, late-harvest Rieslings, and Tokaji. Most of these whites meet the #4 criterion. Red wines, those that meet criterion #1, #2, and/or #3, can include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, and Syrah. I say can include because not all wines become better over time. As Sideways so elegantly points out, eventually all wine will begin to decline. Even wines meant to be kept for many years should be drunk before its too late.
A fair average for cellar-worthy whites is about five to seven years (some might go 10). On the other hand, some reds can easily be kept for 30 years and longer, assuming that your aging conditions are appropriate. So, how do you know? I usually start by reading the back of the bottle (helpful winemakers will often print how long the wine is intended to be aged or cellared on the back), calling the winemaker, and discussing the bottles in our cellar with the professionals at our local wine shop. Or, if Robert and I have a bottle that we really like, but feel is drinking a little too young, we buy a few more bottles, and cellar them. Discussion and experimentation are probably the two best parts of winemaking and wine drinking.
The jury is still out on when I’ll peak before beginning my steady, inevitable decline. But I don’t think it’s this year.
*There are winemakers and drinkers out there who marginalize both of these films. But I think their criticisms are misplaced. Sideways helped Pinot Noir, a great and challenging grape, skyrocket in the marketplace, to everyone’s benefit. Bottle Shock stars Alan Rickman and features the musical stylings of the Doobie Brothers. And I think that’s all I should need to say about that.