It’s true that many of the world’s great wines only show their best after several years of aging, but this doesn’t mean that all wines are meant to aged. In fact, the majority of the world’s wines, about ninety percent, are meant to be consumed within the first year after bottling, if not sooner, and an additional nine percent are meant to be consumed within five years of their release! What’s more, wines under $25 are almost always meant to be consumed young.
Adding to the race to drink your wine in time, once opened, a wine’s lifespan is very short — usually not exceeding forty-eight hours. While it may not taste bad enough to be poured down the drain, the wine will have undergone some unfavorable changes due to oxidation (for example, you might feel the urge to pour it on your salad as dressing).
Luckily, there are a few ways to determine if a wine is meant to be aged, or if it is meant to be consumed as soon as possible. Why is it so important to pay attention to the vintage date on the bottle, anyway? The answer is not as simple as you might think, and much of how or why wine ages, particularly the small proportion of white wine that does, largely remains a mystery today. As a general rule, however, you can expect that the zip in your Sauvignon Blanc will only stay for a couple days after opening, and if you’re opening a 2006 in the year 2012, you might as well just use that bottle for your finest pasta sauce. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rather rare.
Luckily, most retail shops won’t lead you astray when it comes to fresh wines and will be sure to consistently update their own inventory with the current vintages. Be wary of closeout deals and sales that are set just to move inventory, and you may want to avoid corner shops without a high turnover. Most importantly, beware of the home cellar where a bottle of wine may have gotten lost amongst the bottles and is now past its prime.
There are some simple tools customers can use when determining if a wine is still “fresh.” First, pay attention to the vintage date: a white wine bottled more than two or three years before consuming is generally past its prime. However, there are exceptions to every rule. High-acid, white grapes such as Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and Assyrtiko can withstand several years of aging. Certain winemaking techniques can also prolong the age of a wine such as the use of oak, which is why some of the very best chardonnays, including white Burgundy, can stand the test of time
That doesn’t mean that red wines are impervious. Red wines can be tricky when using vintage as a benchmark for freshness. Many times, whether for legal reasons or stylistic preference, red wines will not be released on the market until several years after the grapes were harvested. In this case, consumers can use “clues” such as the region, the grape variety, and if worse comes to worst, the back label where it has become increasingly common for producers to write the suggested lifespan of the wine.
Customers can also use color cues. Wine changes color as it ages; whites become darker and reds become light, both trending toward the color brown. With the exception of sweet wines or white wines that are meant to be aged, most white wines should have a bright, vibrant lemon color at their peak and red wines should be garnet or ruby.
Aroma character can also reveal a lot about the freshness of a wine. If the wine smells more of nuts than fresh fruits, it’s generally been oxidized. While this is sometimes done on purpose and is certainly a welcome aroma for wines like sherry or Madeira, it is generally a sign the wine is creeping past its prime. Aroma is also one of the best cues to determine if a wine has been open too long: does it still smell like wine, or more like vinegar?
While knowing how to look for an over-aged wine can be helpful, this information always begs the question, “why?” Rather, what exactly is going on inside the bottle that makes it so important to consume the wines young in the first place?
The way a wine ages depends upon a lot of things: the grape, the region, the winemaker’s influence, and the care taken with the bottle from the time it leaves the cellar to the time it ends up in your glass. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the balance of certain components in a wine, including but not limited to residual sugar, alcohol content, tannins, ripeness of fruit when harvested, pH levels, and the use of sulphur throughout the winemaking process and at bottling. In most cases, higher levels of each of these things results in a longer living, more complex wine, particularly in red wines.
Keeping things simple, aging a wine comes down to the influence of oxygen. Much like the effect it has on human skin, oxygen breaks down the components of a wine which can leave it flabby and a skewed version of what it was when it was young. In the case of red wines, a high level of phenolic compounds (tannins from the grape skin, stems, and seeds), acid, and alcohol are necessary for aging as these compounds are able to utilize the oxygen and prevent the breakdown of flavors. This, of course, coincides with the knowledge that most wine should be drunk young as most wines being sold and drunk today are those lower in tannin, acidity, and alcohol.
As for white wines, there is little known about what makes the lucky few suitable for long-term aging, but the assumption made thus far is dependent on high acid and, therefore, lower pH level wines such as what is found in Riesling — which is certainly not to say that all Riesling should be aged.
In short, if the wines on the rack are under $25 it is safe to assume that they should be consumed within one to five years of bottling, but a little wine knowledge of grapes, producers, and regional character can go a long way. Nevertheless, drink up! There is no sense in seeing a good wine go to waste.
Debunking screw caps
Despite the fact that screw caps are becoming increasingly popular throughout world of wine, certain prejudices still exist. There is a strong misconception that a wine under screw cap is cheap. While twisting off the top might not be as romantic as removing a cork, screw caps create a nearly impermeable seal that can guarantee a fresher, brighter wine that will keep the fruit fruitier and the taste zippier for longer. Added bonus: wines under screw cap are much more functional — no screw pull required — which means enjoyment any time!