When it comes to wine, older is sometimes better — but not always.
Whether a wine improves with age once you bring it home depends on a lot of factors, from the vintage itself to the winemaker’s techniques during production to the way you store the bottle.
“A lot of it has to do with the wine’s chemistry,” says Lee Lutes, winemaker and managing member at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay. “A lot of it has to do with the vintage of the wine — whether it was a really good growing season, whether the grapevines and the fruit developed in a way that allows the resulting wine to be age-worthy. It’s not easily quantifiable.”
Various wines — from different reds and whites to sparkling and specialty wines — have the potential to age well, under certain conditions.
Tannins in red wines function as antioxidants, aiding preservation. These astringent compounds are present in reds specifically because those grapes, in contrast with most white-wine grapes, are fermented with their skins and seeds.
“[Tannins] attract oxygen preferentially versus other things in wine that oxygen will bind to, like a flavor compound or an aromatic or color compound,” says Brian Lesperance, vice president at Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville. “As the tannins bind up the oxygen, the oxygen can’t bind with something else and do damage.”
The wine then softens as it ages and may develop more nuanced flavors and aromatics.
“What happens is through time, in reaction with oxygen, the tannins in wines go from these short-chain molecules to these really long chains that then feel differently on your tongue,” says Brian Hosmer, winemaker at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula. “And some of them get so long that they literally precipitate out of the wine and they’re no longer in solution, so they’re not there to be tasted.
“So the wine softens and it becomes more nuanced and more complex in ways that are hard to put your finger on, but it tastes different.”
Also at the chemical level, pH affects the age-worthiness of wine as well. The lower the pH — and thus the higher the acidity — the more ageable the wine.
Interestingly, Michigan’s climate has an advantage over some other wine regions when it comes to producing low-pH wines.
“Hot climates tend to make red wines that have really high pH, and so you have problems with color stability and all kinds of issues,” says Dave Miller, owner and winemaker at White Pine Winery in St. Joseph. “That’s why cool-climate wines, like we have here in Michigan, tend to have better chemistry and better ability to age.”
When all is said and done, a well-made red can last for several years — five to 10 easily, Lesperance says, for a Bordeaux-style red such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot.
“Your big Bordeaux grapes are going to have your longest shelf life in general because they have the biggest load of tannin,” he says.
As a general rule, Lesperance says, white wines don’t age as gracefully as reds.
“With whites, we generally try to tell people you probably want to get to those within a couple years,” he says. “Some age better than others.”
Pinot Grigio, for example, may not last many years, but Riesling and Chardonnay can last a long time.
“This adage that white wines need to be consumed right away, that’s really a falsehood, especially in a region like ours,” Lutes says, noting that some white wines can last five — or even 10 — years.
Here, too, pH comes into play.
“Riesling tends to age a little bit better because it’s got a higher acidity, a lower pH,” Lesperance says.
Sparkling and Specialty Wines
Sparkling and specialty wines, such as ice wine, can age particularly well.
“Sparkling wine ages very gracefully because it’s under pressure, so there’s no infiltration of oxygen in that bottle,” Lesperance says.
Ice wines and other sweet dessert wines can age well, too, in part because of their high sugar content.
“We just drank an ice wine that we had made in 2002,” Lutes says. “It was stunningly good.”
Tips for Getting Started
There are some helpful guidelines you can follow if you are interested in buying wine and letting it age in the bottle at home. For starters, keep in mind that most wines on store shelves are not meant to age — they’re meant to be bought and consumed fairly quickly.
“If all the wine was set up to be laid down until you could really get into it and enjoy it, then everybody would have to have a giant cellar years in advance of them trying to even enjoy it,” Hosmer explains.
Beyond that, it helps to consider the type of wine you’re buying and its price point. When in doubt, depending on where you’re shopping, you can always ask the winemaker or wine-shop staff member for their advice.
“Really, the best thing you can do when you’re buying a moderately expensive bottle, and I usually say $20 or more, is just to ask, ‘Is this a bottle that’s intended to age, or is it really one that should be consumed really soon?’” Lutes says. “Usually, whoever you’re getting it from can give you some sense of that, particularly if you’re buying it directly from a winery.”
In addition, buying multiple bottles of a specific wine, if you can, helps make the at-home aging process fun and educational. Lutes recommends purchasing at least three bottles; that way, you can drink the first one within a few months of buying it and stow the others to try later.
“Try to come back to it maybe a year later and see how it is and drink that second bottle, if you’ve only got three, in a year — so now you’ve consumed two,” Lutes says, suggesting that you note any differences you perceive.
“But then try to forget about the third bottle for at least two more years,” he says. “What you’ll do is you’ll take on an appreciation for what happens to these wines over time and whether you like it or not.”
At home, how you store your wine also affects how well it ages. Heat and big temperature fluctuations, light, and vibrations (e.g., from a refrigerator) can all negatively impact the quality of your wine.
“If you have the intention of aging your wines, the best thing you can do is keep them in some place that is dark and relatively cool and relatively stable in temperature,” Lutes says. “A basement corner is ideal.
“The other good thing about that is that you might actually forget about it, which makes it easier to let it age.”
In addition, try positioning bottles on their sides or upside down so that the cork stays in contact with the wine. Keeping the cork hydrated like this keeps it fully expanded, which in turn maintains a tight seal that blocks out oxygen.
Of course, it is possible to let a wine age for too long. But as long as your storage conditions are good, you don’t need to be too worried. Besides, once a wine is past its peak, it doesn’t “fall off a cliff,” Lesperance says. Instead, it degrades slowly. Once you open the bottle, though, it’s best to drink the wine within a few days.
Finally, remember that not everyone enjoys aged wines, even when the aging process is done right.
“You might open it in 10 years, and I might love it, but it might not be your thing,” Lesperance says. “It’s a very individual experience, but it’s fun to age wines.”