Knowing the length of time to age a wine can be difficult. I have seen many friends with Napa Valley Cabs that they had aged for too long and were forced to pour them down the drain. Deciding the point at which to consume is many times like going to Las Vegas and placing a bet at the roulette table. Why is there so much emphasis from wine connoisseurs and collectors to find that point at which the wine is reaching its peak of development within the bottle before opening? What are the benefits? How do we define the amount of time to age wines and not risk a loss?
First one must look at the conditions that the bottle has been stored and maintained since bottling. Once produced and distributed to the collector, the bottle should be placed into a storage facility, cellar or environment that maintains a constant cool temperature with no windows or direct light. Maintaining a constant cool temperature of 45 - 65 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of 60% - 70% is optimum. Key thing is to keep the environment stabile where it does not fluctuate. Keeping the wine at a lower temperature will slow down chemical reactions within the wine and allow it to mature and develop more slowly over a longer period of time than if stored at higher temperatures. Maintaining the humidity at 60% - 70% is also important as it helps preserve and maintain the cork. This is crucial as the cork allows a certain amount of oxygen to reach the wine so that it can develop. If the cork does not have enough moisture it will dry out and allow too much oxygen to enter the wine causing oxidation. At this point the wine has been destroyed. If the humidity is too high it will lead to development of micro-organisms and mold on the bottles, labels and corks.
Now that we have the basis of how the wine should be maintained over time let's look at the aging question. What are the benefits of aging wines? We also need to evaluate the overall properties of the wine and decide if it can be aged and if it will benefit from it.
Wines that have the potential to be aged will provide the consumer with a tremendous complexity. Cellaring wines over time allows the wine to undergo many types of chemical reactions between the sugars, acids and tannins that will change the aromatics, color, mouth feel and taste so highly sought by wine connoisseurs. The gamble or risk is that one needs to drink the wine just before or at the plateau in its aging cycle. The plateau or peak is the point at which the wine is no longer able to remain chemical balance and begins to deteriorate loosing fruit flavors, color, etc. The length of time for this degradation to begin varies with varietals, vintage, wine making practices and region. As an example, Cabernet Sauvignons will generally age longer than Pinot Noirs or Zinfandels. Old World wines from France, Italy, Spain, etc tend to age longer than wines from the New World such as California, Australia, etc.
Below are quotes by wine experts on their views of aging wines:
"Certainly inexpensive red wines, and most moderately-priced ones, can be enjoyed young and are unlikely to improve dramatically by aging in the bottle."
...Wine expert Alexis Bespaloff, Wine Enthusiast
"It's a common misconception that all wines improve with age. In fact, more than 90 percent of all the wines made in the world are meant to be consumed within one year, and less than 1 percent of the world's wines are meant to be aged for more than 5 years."
...Kevin Zraly, Windows of the World Wine School
"Balanced, harmonious red wines will stay that way [as they age in the bottle], and blustery ones will keep on blustering... A wine is not going to change its spots, even if it sits in a bottle for 10 years."
...Grape guru Bob Thompson, San Francisco Examiner
A blind tasting was performed on various varietals of younger versus older wines from $8 - $32. The results were that six of the younger (1998) reds won, while seven of the older vintages won. Cabernet Sauvignon which are known for their ability to improve with age in the blind tasting resulted in two of the three Cab winners being younger . In conclusion, Fred McMillian wrote, "Aging modestly-priced California reds is not worth the trouble. Buy now, drink now."
When evaluating a wine for its potential to age the wine must have enough fuel or food consisting of fruits and tannins as well as preservatives which consists of alcohol and acid for the aging process. In simple terms, a wine with a large amount of tannins and a thick syrupy fruit profile (lots of body) will last longer than a delicate low fruit content wine with low tannins. A wine’s aging potential is based on balance and concentration.
The four items that are required are:
Tannins (red wines)
The wine must be balanced with the above items to allow the aging process without damaging effects. As a general rule these characteristics are found in all good wine where great balance, depth and intensity are present.
In conclusion you can see that there are many variables that come into play when deciding to age wines. Not all will benefit as found by the blind tasting of young versus old. Proper environmental conditions and proper wine chemistry are a must. As I stated in the beginning, it is like going to Vegas. You look at the odds and you place your bet. There are ways to help mitigate some of the risk if you understand a wines chemistry and track record for aging. Many wineries provide aging tables to help you. My general rule of thumb is nothing over 10 years for all wines except Old World wines such as French Burgundy's and Bordeaux's from top Chateaus. Barolos and Brunellos from Italy will also age for a long time. Pinot Noirs, Merlots and Zinfandels from the California (New World), I usually let them go to about 7 years. Yes, I may be conservative, but I would rather drink and enjoy these wines than pour them down the drain. The caveat to my recommendation is that there are exceptional wines from California such as Opus, Dominus, Cain, Caymus, etc that will age for a long time. I have also been humbled by a few select wines that were cellared by friends far beyond my expectations but were phenomenal. One was a 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon that a friend opened and was spectacular. Another was a 1995 Camelot Pinot Noir from Napa Valley California. An inexpensive Pinot Noir that was to die for. You can be surprised from time to time. Gamblers in Vegas have been known to place large sums of money into a slot machine and every once in a while walk away with huge winnings. The bottom line is that it is all about risk and proper evaluation of the wines against the criteria explained above. If you have a case or even a few bottles of a certain wine that you feel can be aged open one at the point that you decide the wine should be approaching its prime. From this sample you can evaluate if you want to sample a second bottle in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, etc. The old adage of "You shall drink no wine before its time" brings on the other adage of "it's not as easy as you think."