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Brandon Lapides is winemaker at Armida Winery in the Russian River Valley wine region.
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Ask the Winemaker
What is ML Fermentation, Malolactic Fermentation, Secondary Fermentation?
 
Why do wines get better with age?
 
How do you pair wines with dessert?
 
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 1-2
 
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 3-4
 
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 5-7
 
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 - Finale
 
What’s so special about Syrah?
 
Harvest 2009, First Interview with Winemaker B
 
Harvest 2009, Second Interview with Winemaker B
 
Harvest 2009, Third Interview with Winemaker B
 
Harvest 2009, Fourth Interview with Winemaker B
 
Harvest 2009, Final Interview with Winemaker B
 
Why do wines get better with age?
Not all wines get better with age. This question is directed at the red wines, especially the bigger reds like cabernet sauvignon, that can improve with age. Below I’ll talk about the science of wine aging. But while the science is important, the practical question is “How long should I wait before drinking this bottle of wine?”

Red wines, when young, can be dominated by flavors from fruits and especially tannins. What we want to happen is for the wines to balance out, so that all the flavors in the wine come into play when you’re drinking it. Wines can also develop interesting flavor complexity as part of this process. And the way it happens is by the wine aging.

Wine aging is the least specific and scientific part of the whole winemaking process. A winemaker often will state the aging potential of the wine when it is released, but at that time it’s a complete guess. The winemaker has very little idea how his wine will taste after 10 years. It’s a tough place for a winemaker, having to answer “When do you predict that this wine that you have worked so hard on will start going bad? 5-10 years?” Basically the winemaker answers based on how previous vintages have aged. However, there are a couple of scientific factors that the winemaker can look at to help him guess the aging potential of a certain wine.

Acidity and tannins are the main two factors that will affect the aging of a wine. The more acid that is in the wine, the more microbially stable the wine will be. This will prevent any spoilage organisms from producing off flavors during the aging process. Think about the pickles that have been aging in the back of your fridge since the great vintage of ’97; wine works the same way. But don’t pick the grapes too early for more acid, because you’ll get unwanted flavors from underripe fruit.

The tannins present in wine are the anti-oxidant poly-phenols that are present in the seeds and skins of grapes. Tannins are mostly found in large amounts in wines made from thick-skinned red grapes. When these grapes are turned into wine they are always in contact with their skins and seeds, and the tannins are extracted during the fermentation process. Tannins will combine with the small amount of oxygen entering your wine through the cork and turn into larger molecules found in the bottom of older bottles (sediment), reducing the tannin taste in the wine. Preventing the oxygen from getting to the wine will allow the wine to age (oxidize) slower. How you store your wine affects how much oxygen gets in through the cork. (In other columns we’ll talk about barrel aging, corks versus screw tops, and storage and serving conditions for wine.)

Two other factors effecting aging are alcohol levels and sugar content. Alcohol levels in the desert wine Port allows no microbial growth even though there is sugar left to ferment. It is often said,” A wine must be low in alcohol to be able to age.” There is no written rule that a wine will age better with less alcohol, but as a wine ages the fruit, tannins, aromas, and flavors begin to diminish, the alcohol never diminishes in a wine as it ages. I don’t understand how sugar content helps a wine age well, but I know that there are many wines, for example French Sauternes and Hungary’s Royal Tokajii, that age well. These wines seem to last forever and to increase in complexity as they age.

When making a decision on how long to age a wine, think about the factors that I mentioned. Taste the wine and make your own judgment on the acidity, tannin, alcohol and sugar content. If you find a wine that you liked drinking and would consider a candidate to age then buy a couple of bottles (or more!) and please, please, please write down notes somewhere so that you can learn from your own wine aging experiments.

Next Column: How are dessert wines different from other wines?

 
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