I’ve been told my palate favors decay. That might sound like an insult (and it may very well have been intended as one), but I find it a reasonable assessment. After all, my favorite foods include stinky cheese, dry-aged beef, and mushrooms—the very agents of decomposition. And given my druthers, I’d wash it all down with a wine aged just a touch longer than recommended.
Wines that taste of cherries and orange blossoms are far too easy. I prefer the earthy flavors of wisdom and experience. Save the fruit for breakfast and the flowers for my birthday. Give me savory or give me (at least a hint of) death.
These predilections have stoked in me a fascination for the changes that wine undergoes in the bottle. Not just the what but the how and the why. Why does one wine age better than another? How does a given wine evolve over time? And what are the processes governing this transformation?
Everyone has their theories.
The oldest wines Eric Renaud has sampled include a 1792 Madeira, an 1825 dry white from Margaux, and a magnum of 1851 Gruaud-Larose. “Although,” he confesses, “I greatly prefer the 1863 Rausan-Ségla.” Such are the statements you can toss about when you’ve worked as a sommelier at Bern’s Steak House for 23 years.
In his assessment, acidity is the key to successful aging. “My opinion is that the trend for the really great vintages is acid,” he explains, adding that acidity seems to protect and preserve a wine’s fruit signature well into its years. “[The] 1962 Pommard was out-showing wines of higher status from other vintages of that era, but ’62 was cool and the fruit was so pretty and bright.” He pauses to consider California. “In the 1970s and ’80s, the big three vintages were ’74, ’78, ’80, but ’71 and ’73 were difficult. And yet 1971 Ridge, 1973 Mayacamas, 1973 Monte Bello—these are my favorite California wines of all time.”
Renaud ultimately concedes that the very best wines possess the power and concentration to balance all that acid (this is where ’47 and ’61 Bordeaux fit in), but his theory tends to favor challenging vintages. And he has a powerful ally in that school of thought. “If you’ve read the Henri Jayer book, he says that in a great vintage, winemakers can get kind of lazy—they look outside and the weather is perfect, so maybe they’ll skip a day going out into the vineyard. But when the weather’s bad, they are always paying attention, doing those little things. So sometimes in the harder years, a winemaker will make a better wine than in a perfect vintage where Mother Nature is doing all the work.” To support his position, he points to 1967 red Burgundies and 1998 Napa Cabernets, two panned vintages that abound in sleeping beauties.
Of course, in such a subjective field, opinions are bound to differ.
“Let me first say it is almost definitely not acidity, at least not by itself,” asserts Doug Barzelay, longtime wine collector, proprietor of Foxtrot Vineyards in British Columbia, and co-author of Burgundy Vintages: A History from 1845. “And the proof of that is in overly acidic vintages—1996 and 1972 in Burgundy, for example.” Barzelay believes that the wines from those years will never fully resolve. “What tends to happen is that the fruit starts to dry out and the acidity never moderates. And so the wines become progressively less balanced, and the acidity comes into sharper focus as the fruit fades. Having said that,” he admits, “you absolutely do need a good level of acidity for a wine to age.”
Barzelay mainly traffics in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but he does occasionally dabble in other wines. “I’ve certainly had a lot of great old Bordeaux [wines], which seem in many ways to be more dependent on the tannic structures for aging,” he allows. “A good example of this is 1928 versus ’29. The ’29s were ripe, succulent, but at the same time perfectly balanced and drank brilliantly for a long time. But it’s hard to find them in perfect condition now.” He continues, “Meanwhile, the ’28s, which Broadbent in his book says something about them being undrinkable for 50 years or more, those wines are unbelievable now; they are absolutely brilliant.”
The author that Barzelay refers to is Michael Broadbent—wine writer, auctioneer, and one of the great authorities on aged wine. His son, Bartholomew, is a well-respected importer and is also schooled in the joys of older wine. He agrees that acid and tannin play important roles in longevity but makes a case for sugar and alcohol as well (sweet and fortified wines being among the longest lived in the world). And yet, a recent tasting underscored for him a much-loved trope in the wine industry—that there are no great wines, only great bottles.
“The oldest wine I can remember tasting was carbon-dated to 1670. It was a white wine, only 6% ABV, probably from the Canary Islands,” Broadbent recalls. “And it was in perfect condition. You wouldn’t have thought it was more than 10 to 15 years old by the color.” He credits the wine’s quality to the fact that it had spent the majority of its life buried in London clay. “In other words, absolutely no light, damp, and at the perfect temperature.” The takeaway for him was simple. “Storage conditions are the most important factor in a wine’s ability to age.”
Acid, tannin, sugar, alcohol, and storage certainly all play critical roles in a wine’s longevity. But there are also less tangible elements at work. For Doug Polaner, an NYC-based importer and distributor, the most important of these is balance.
“I think for a wine to age it has to be born in balance,” Polaner attests. “There are examples of wines that start out as unbalanced—being very acidic or very tannic—and it takes time for the pieces to come together.” But to his mind, a wine has a greater chance of cohesion if it starts out in harmony. “Especially in Burgundy, but even in Bordeaux, there used to be a thought that rustic wines needed age to be enjoyed. But as winemaking has evolved, today you can drink them young and they can age.”
Beyond balance, there are other impalpable qualities that help guide a wine over time. Winemaker Tony Soter, who made his name in Napa Cabernet before moving to Oregon to focus on Pinot Noir, has given this subject considerable thought.
He feels similarly to Eric Renaud regarding cool vintages. “The components for successful bottle aging, both in terms of structure and aromatics (so vital to creating bottle bouquet), can be easily baked or cooked out. This can happen via hot weather but also through hangtime.”
And yet, he thinks the importance of acidity is often over-stated. “I’ve seen too many well-aging wines with high pHs, so I don’t buy the notion that acid, within normal ranges, is all that telling. And likewise with tannin. It’s easy to say that tannin is a preservative, but with a lot of wines, you are waiting for the tannins to get out of the way so you can enjoy them.”
So if neither tannin nor acid is a good indicator of ageability, what is? Soter believes it is something he calls flavor interest. “It’s kind of hard to quantify the level of substance, density, the core that holds a really good wine together,” he confesses. “You can have a wine by the numbers with nice tannins and good acid and not have flavor interest.”
Pinot Noir is the perfect case study. “Many gorgeous, delicate Burgundies or old Oregon Pinot Noirs will shock you as to how beautiful they are,” he explains. “And these were never big wines. Never alcoholic, never tannic, not too much color, not screaming in pH.” He pauses to ask, “So how did they evolve to become such beautiful wines? Because they have substance.”
The Broadbent portfolio abounds in older wines. In addition to a robust Port and Madeira business, they regularly sell back vintages from such seemingly unlikely sources as Lebanon’s Chateau Musar and Tyrrell’s in Hunter Valley. For Bartholomew Broadbent, what allows these wines to age so well is their purity and lifeforce. “One of the most important things is that the wine is living and hasn’t been filtered or fined to death,” he tells me.
His team recently tasted a vertical of Musar going back to the 1950s. “Once opened, the whites kept improving for a month. A filtered wine won’t survive like that because it has nothing to live off.” Broadbent strongly believes that modern winemaking tricks interfere with proper aging. “Before the second war, everything was completely natural. But now, when you can have up to 50 additives in a wine, it is not a part of the natural balance anymore.” He also feels that some of these innovations are mucking things up for traditional producers. “When I started selling Port in 1985, basically you’d add the brandy to the wine, and it would stop the fermentation because yeast couldn’t survive above 16% ABV. But now, you have doctored yeasts floating around that can survive at high alcohols,” he complains.
Maggie Harrison, proprietor and winemaker for Antica Terra and Lillian, shares this sentiment. “When people would ask me about the ageability of the wines that I make, I used to answer the same way, like that emoji of the girl with her hands up,” she recalls. “I’m the first winemaker in my family, so I’m at the edge of my empirical evidence. I know that the wines I made in 2004 are better now than ever, but they may be garbage tomorrow. I just don’t know.”
Her incertitude recently shifted when a client pointed out that, by eschewing modern ingredients such as enzymes and commercial yeasts, her winemaking did in fact possess a link to the past. “We are still in the generation where the wines that were made with additives are in their youth. We may find that wines that went through reverse osmosis are the longest lived in the world, but we don’t know yet.”
Harrison’s point emphasizes a deeper truth, “People sometimes say, ‘I’m building my wines to age, so the tannins need to be like this, or the acid needs to be like that.’ But no one knows what makes a wine age well. If they did, we would all do it."
Even so, she has a hypothesis. “What I really think, with all the cells in my tiny shrinking body, is that well-made things last.” She pauses briefly before continuing. “It’s the work, not the materials. It doesn’t matter if it’s glass or stone or wood, the Sears Tower or a half-timber house in Norway, a sweater or a book-binding. Things that are well-built last a really long time.”
Harrison steers her thoughts back to wine. “Valentini Cerasuolo and DRC Montrachet have absolutely zero in common except for one thing: a human with a beating heart leaning in and making it beautiful.”
When writing my book, Napa Valley, Then & Now, I struggled with how to best indicate ideal drinking windows. I had personally witnessed the consternation they can cause consumers; a guest once assured me they couldn’t possibly order the wine I recommended, as a critic’s tasting note had suggested enjoying it between 2015 and 2025 (this was 2014). Drinking windows are often taken literally, even when the authors intend for their guidance to be interpreted more loosely.
Difficulties of clairvoyance aside, and using my own palate as a data point, was it even possible to generalize about such things? Some people relish the fruit and intensity of a young wine and would regard even a whiff of underbrush as a harbinger of death. The more I thought about it, the more numerically exact drinking windows seemed like bunk.
Even our oracles get it wrong. So often over the course of my career, I have flipped open Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine or other seminal works to find the tasting note to be breathtakingly accurate, but the drinking window long expired. How could this be?
According to Barzelay, if he’s ever surprised by the way a wine is drinking, it’s usually on the upside. And that’s because he sees a wine’s lifespan more of a plateau than an arc. “I think that vintages reach a point of maturity but then often stay there for a longer period of time than expected.” This echoes my experience with older California Cabernet—once a wine hits maturity, it tends to loiter. Though, to be fair, this may be far more likely in fine wine regions such as Napa, Burgundy, and Barolo than where simple table wine is the order of the day.
Taste in wine is subjective, and a taste for mature wine seems doubly so. Because of this, I offer the same advice every time my counsel is sought. If you can’t experiment with older wines off a restaurant list or at auction, buy a whole case of something and stick it in your cellar. Open up a bottle every few months or years, taking careful notes along the way. That is the best way to determine the level of development you enjoy in your wine.
Who knows? Depending on what you selected, you may find after several years that you’ve changed more than the wine has.
Palate preferences aside, what exactly is happening inside those bottles? What is the specific alchemy of age?
From an observational and aesthetic point of view, several things change. Red wines tend to lose color while white wines gain, and all hues shift toward brown. Fruity and floral flavors give way to earth tones. And structural elements integrate into the body—tannins drop out of solution, acidity softens, and, where applicable, bubbles diminish and residual sugar seems to melt into the palate. In an ideal world, these transformations will result in an aromatically complex and texturally seductive wine. But if a wine was not meant for great aging, the results can be bony, hollow, or boring—ghastly instead of ghostly.
Whatever the gustatory outcome, the scientific process is the same. Tannins, acid, sugar, alcohol, and aromas all evolve over time, but instead of moving in tandem, each element morphs at its own pace. This not only adds to a wine’s ultimate complexity, it also makes accurately predicting an ideal drinking window that much more difficult.
First things first, we must talk about oxygen. Oxygen is essential to both the production and the maturation of wine. Many of the biggest decisions that a winemaker tackles—type of press, choice of fermentation vessel, how to handle the must, whether or not to age in oak (plus the kind of oak, size of barrel, and duration in cask), and type of closure—all have to do with managing oxygen exposure. Careful attention is required, as oxygen is the reactant for a range of chemical processes, some benevolent, others deadly.
Perhaps counterintuitively, wines that have been methodically protected from oxygen contact (think New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc under screwcap) can be at the greatest risk from oxidative spoilage and often have the shortest shelf life. Meanwhile, wines that enjoy long and slow oxygen exposure (a Barolo that spends three years in cask and then is bottled under cork, for example) are the best inured against it. This is not unlike how vaccines protect us against disease by exposing us to small doses of the responsible viral or bacterial agent.
Oxygen is a powerful reactant, but a substrate can be said to be “oxidized” even if no oxygen is present. This can be confusing to students of wine, who likely think of oxidation purely in terms of wine spoilage. But to students of chemistry, something is oxidized when its composition is changed due to a loss of electrons. This phenomenon was named after elemental oxygen because it is so good at causing this kind of reaction. Confused? Have some wine and read it again! Like your singing voice, your scientific knowledge is sure to improve with each glass.
This article will break down what happens to the individual elements of wine as it ages, but this is a flawed strategy, as nearly all aspects are interrelated. One of the best places to witness this intersectionality is with color. In red wine, color comes from the concentration of anthocyanins, which are related to tannins (both are polyphenols, so when winemakers talk about phenolic density, they are mostly talking about tannin and color).
Of all the textural elements in wine, tannins undergo the most pronounced transformation. When the fruit is first pressed, the tannins (located primarily in the grape skins but also the stems and seeds) are small in size and possess a strong bitter taste. Oxygen and heat work to bind the tannin molecules together into chains. As the chains get longer, the tannins lose bitterness and gain astringency. This process slows down considerably once a wine is bottled but does, in fact, continue indefinitely.
Once a certain amount of time passes, some tannin chains get so long that they drop out of solution and form sediment. This is thought to result in a noticeably softer-tasting wine. In this way, the taste of the tannins evolves from bitter to increasingly astringent to smooth. This is the common knowledge; however, the scientific understanding of this process is still evolving, with some researchers positing that tannin chain length actually decreases with age.
Tannins are considered preservatives because, like rodeo clowns, they draw the potentially harmful attention of oxygen away from other compounds in the wine. In other words, tannins are antioxidants because they themselves are preferentially oxidized. Indeed, phenolic density can be a sign of good aging potential. In white wines, this can be gained through skin contact or the use of barrels; in dessert wines, it is often achieved via the concentrating effects of drying, freezing, or botrytis; and in reds, it can be emphasized by eliminating irrigation or by cultivating the vines under conditions that thicken skins, such as at high elevation or on meager soils. Furthermore, as Bartholomew Broadbent posited, excessive fining and filtration can strip a wine of its phenolics, so its avoidance may indeed assist in aging.
Anthocyanins are a class of clear-, red-, blue-, and black-colored compounds that are derived primarily from grape skins (white grapes have tannins, but only reds have anthocyanins). The exact hue is determined by the ratio of anthocyanins, which is directly influenced by variety and pH: red pigments dominate at lower pHs, colorless and purple pigments take the reins at higher pHs. Anthocyanins are fairly unstable and need to link with tannins to form lasting color, so without tannins to bind, a wine quickly loses color intensity. As with pure tannins, some of the anthocyanin-tannin chains lengthen over time until the molecules get so large they precipitate out of solution. In this way, a red wine slowly loses its color.
Furthermore, bricking and browning occur due to the accumulation of oxidized phenolic compounds, such as caftaric acid. Acetaldehyde, which is responsible for nutty or bruised apple aromas, also builds over time, as ethanol is slowly oxidized (or rapidly oxidized, in the case of Sherry and rancio wines). A wine’s brown color increases naturally, and while it may seem to arise later in reds, in reality it is merely covered up by anthocyanins. As the anthocyanin-tannin chains drop out of solution, the underlying brown color is gradually unmasked.
As previously mentioned, acid is extremely important to the aging process. According to Benoît Marsan, professor of wine chemistry at the Université du Québec à Montréal, a higher level of acidity helps prevent the oxidation of a range of compounds, thereby slowing the aging process. This is especially true for polyphenols, which may partially explain why tannins are so slow to resolve in high-acid reds like Barolo.
There are many types of acid floating around in wine, but tartaric is of primary importance. Malic and citric acid are present in smaller amounts (unless the fruit is very unripe) and are far more susceptible to bacterial degradation, though that tends to happen either before bottling or during a spoilage event. During bottle aging, it is tartaric and, to a lesser extent, acetic acid (the primary constituent of volatile acidity) that play the most important roles.
Over the course of extended bottle age, the amount of acid in a wine will actually decrease. But though the loss is chemically measurable, the change in taste is barely noticeable. Probably the biggest aesthetic shift is in the expression of tannin. As acidity increases the perceived astringency of tannins, even a small loss of acid will result in a more supple-feeling wine. Furthermore, as acidity preserves color and forestalls browning (ever squeeze lemon on cut apple slices?), a reduction in acidity makes for a less visually vibrant wine. Part of the reason why the change in hue is so much more dramatic for red wines than for whites, beyond the initial concentration of pigment, is that red wines tend to be lower in acid than whites.
Tartaric acid decreases in wine primarily through the formation of potassium bitartrate crystals. In white winemaking, this natural but potentially off-putting phenomenon is usually circumvented via cold stabilization, but in red wines, these crystals mix with the precipitated tannins and anthocyanins to become part of the sediment sludge.
Small amounts of acids, including lactic and acetic, are also lost through esterification, a reaction between acid and alcohol that creates an aromatic ester (the esterification of tartaric acid with alcohol generates a non-odorous ester). The reactive alcohol does not need to be ethanol; there are many alcohols present in wine. For example, isoamyl acetate, the major ester molecule responsible for banana aroma, is formed through the reaction of isoamyl alcohol and acetic acid.
Alcohol is one of the more controversial factors in aging. While above a certain level it clearly acts as a preservative (consider the longevity of fortified wines and spirits), most professionals regard the ageability of higher alcohol table wines with suspicion. But while this position is often justified, the failure of such a wine likely has more to do with the diminished acidity and prematurely oxidized flavors that accompany heat and hangtime, rather than the elevated ethanol itself.
The most important defensive function of alcohol is the inhibition of microbiological growth. Acetobacter, whose metabolic activities turn wine into vinegar, is unlikely to survive in ABVs of over 15.5%. Even notoriously stalwart yeast such as Brettanomyces whither at higher proofs.
Alcohol also has a profound impact on a wine’s bouquet, as many aromatic compounds are far more soluble in alcohol than water. This means that the higher the ABV, the longer a wine’s aromas are likely to remain in solution. In other words, the higher the ABV, the higher the threshold of the odorants. Furthermore, ethanol has a masking effect on a wine’s nose due to its own scent. Professor Marsan highlights Banyuls as an example. Unfortified Grenache, which tends to be low in acidity, loses its color and freshness rapidly. Dose it with brandy and leave in some residual sugar, however, and suddenly the wine is able to preserve its primary aromas well into the future.
Alcohol also affects a wine’s palate, as it contributes a subtle sweetness that mitigates astringency and softens the perception of acid. As with acidity, some alcohol is lost over the course of aging. This occurs primarily through esterification, though again the effect on taste is negligible.
Sweet wines are among the longest lived in the world for a panoply of reasons, but the most important seem to be increased osmotic pressure (which inhibits microbial growth) and the preferential oxidation of sugar. In this way, the sugar in dessert wines behaves like tannin in red wines.
Botrytis complicates matters in that it produces a slew of highly efficient oxidizing enzymes, which is why the wines often require more sulfur to thrive. While this has obvious implications for aging, the handicap is counterbalanced by the fact that, through desiccating the grapes, botrytis concentrates not only sugars but acids (mostly malic and citric, as tartaric is degraded) and phenolics.
Dessert wines also have unique aromatic signatures that may aid in longevity. Professor Marsan explains, “An aromatic precursor is an aroma molecule that is often attached to a sugar molecule. When it is linked to sugar, you cannot smell the aroma. But during fermentation, an enzyme cuts the link, and you will release the aroma molecules. Of course, they are not all completely metabolized [during fermentation]. And with time, you can continue this process.” As with the Banyuls example, sweet wines can conserve elements of their youthful bouquets far longer than dry wines. This is especially true for terpenes, but is not true for thiols, as they bind to the amino acid cysteine, not sugar.
Once aromatic compounds are released, they either evaporate or evolve, often via oxidization. These activities—the maturation of existing aromas and the release of new ones—happen in tandem, which increases the complexity of the nose. While this occurs in all wines, it is especially drawn out where residual sugar is plentiful.
Lees play an especially interesting part in the aging process, and their use can often increase the lifespan of a wine. “There’s a lot that lees will do,” Professor Marsan begins. “They release special enzymes, increase body, prevent crystal formation, consume oxygen, and promote a reductive atmosphere.” This reductive atmosphere is critical to aging, as it helps to keep oxidation at bay as well as decrease and postpone browning.
Of all the enzymes lees release, the most prevalent are reductases and hydrolytic enzymes. These compounds do many things, but their effect on a wine’s bouquet is particularly noteworthy. Hydrolytic enzymes increase the rate at which aromatic molecules are released, and reductases help mitigate potentially unpleasant scents. “For Chardonnay, if it passes through malolactic fermentation, the enzymes can reduce diacetyl, which can avoid big butter notes.” In red wines, reductases can make for a subtler oak signature, as they reduce vanillin. While this does not directly impact ageability, it can be thought to improve balance, Doug Polaner’s primary ingredient for benevolent aging.
Lees also increase the body of a wine by releasing fatty acids and mannoproteins into solution. Mannoproteins are magical compounds that perform a variety of functions. They interact weakly with the sugar receptors on our tongues, causing a slight increase in perceived sweetness; absorb certain aromas, preserving them for future release; and actively limit the formation of potassium bitartrate crystals. This last feature is beneficial from a cosmetic perspective, but it also has the added effect of preventing tartaric acid loss during aging.
Of all the changes a wine undergoes in bottle, the transformation of its aromatic signature is by far the most dramatic and complex.
One of the first things to happen to a wine’s bouquet as it ages is the loss of primary aromas. These scents are mostly composed of thiols (grapefruit, passionfruit), esters (white flowers, berries), and terpenes (lychee, rose), many of which are fairly prone to oxidation or hydrolysis, another form of degradation. Interestingly, pyrazines (bell pepper, herb) are relatively stable, even over the course of decades. That said, our perception of pyrazines will change based on the competing aromatic compounds that rise and fall across time.
Professor Marsan warns that it’s difficult to generalize about a wine’s aromatic metamorphosis. “It’s not a straightforward thing; it is complex. There are general trends but lots of variables.” He is also quick to point out that a wine’s closure plays a huge role, but for purposes of this discussion, we will assume that our hypothetical wines are experiencing the slow oxidation transfer provided by natural cork.
We have already discussed the creation of new esters through the interaction of alcohol and acid, but there are other classes of aromatic compounds that arise during bottle aging. Norisoprenoids are particularly interesting. Depending on the grape variety and the quantity of precursors, a wine may develop TDN (famous as the petrol smell in older Riesling) or vitispirane (eucalyptus). The scent for black truffle (dimethylsulfide, or DMS), generally occurs during late-stage aging following many years of bottle rest.
Professor Marsan elaborates that some of the smells associated with bottle age aren’t always the result of new compounds that have been synthesized with time. Often, they were already present but masked by more powerful aromas. “For example," he explains, "fusel alcohols often have an herbaceous quality. When these oxidize, a wine’s greenness is diminished, which can make it seem more fruity, even if the quantity of fruit-associated aromas is unchanged.”
It is also likely that the shifting equilibrium of aroma molecules over time affects our perception of a wine’s texture. U.C. Davis professor Andy Waterhouse has studied the chemical effects of decanting and has remarked that the rapid oxidation of certain aromas (especially some sulfur-based thiols that can smell of cabbage or garlic) not only “cleans up” a wine’s nose but also makes the texture appear smoother. Per his research, the average time a wine spends in decanter is insufficient to dramatically alter the tannic structure. Instead, it appears that the consumer feels the wine is softer because of the increased pleasantness of the nose.
In a related vein, Professor Marsan suggests that changes in the ratios of aromatic compounds may be behind a wine’s elusive “dumb phase.” “Sometimes there is overlap, with aromas falling out while others are growing, but sometimes there is a gap. And that dead zone could very well be what’s called the dumb period.”
Aging wine takes time, dedication, and a certain amount of idealism. It also costs money. If you live in a city, your cellar occupies precious square footage. If you are a producer holding onto stock, you owe insurance and are taxed accordingly. Either way, you are likely paying utilities to keep those bottles comfy. Meanwhile, as your wine rests, its value is performing calisthenics, jumping up or crashing down depending on the market, currency fluctuations, and the evolving perception of critics.
Perhaps because of the above, shortcutting the aging process is big business. Strategies range from the selling of crystal decanters (civilized), to aerating funnels (parlor tricks), to breathable glasses (snake oil), and the sonication of yeast cells (cool, yet concerning). But most experts will agree that there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned time.
Considering the financial inconvenience, the invisible threat of spoilage, and the low probability of opening the bottle at the exact right moment, cellaring wine seems like a profoundly foolish endeavor. So why do we do it?
The answers are inevitably emotional.
For Doug Polaner, it’s a love of history. “I’ve had Barolos back to the ’30s, and it’s amazing to be able to drink them,” he extols. “You think about back when those wines are made, the sophistication and machinery of that era was nowhere near what it is today.” He continues on a more personal note, “It’s particularly fascinating when you work with the people. You understand not only how the wine ages but also the history of the winery. Maybe you remember the father who made the wine.”
For me, it’s complicated. Wine is more than a passion for me. It is my profession. And, since I began the MW program, it is also my lord and master. In my quest to understand the subject from every angle, it would be easy to sacrifice affection on the altar of knowing. To pet the bunny so hard that it dies.
I reach for aged wine as a kind of aesthetic or spiritual centering. When good, there’s nothing more beautiful. Heady, perfumed, and utterly transformed, it bears only the faintest resemblance to the fruit of its origin. And it’s okay that I can’t explain what made that particular bottle age so well, because here is what I do know:
Great old wine hits me like love. It starts as a warm feeling in my stomach and creeps up to my head, lightening my mood and focusing my attention. And as with love, there’s never a single discernable element that tipped the scales; it is the result of an unknowable combination of factors, merged into one vague and exquisite whole.
Great old wine keeps me going. It reminds me to embrace life’s mysteries. And not to fear the decay.
Broadbent, Michael. Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wines. New York: Harcort, Inc., 2002.
Colman, Tyler. “The Science Of Decanting.” Wine-Searcher. August 21, 2013. https://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2013/08/decanting-what-makes-it-work.
del Fresno, Juan Manuel, et al. “Sonication of Yeast Biomasses to Improve the Ageing on Lees Technique in Red Wines.” Molecules 24, no. 3 (February 2019), 635.
Dharmadhikari, Murli. “Wine Aging.” Iowa State University, Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute. Accessed January 13, 2020. https://www.extension.iastate.edu/wine/wine-aging.
Good, Jamie. The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
Henschen, Charles. “Norisoprenoids: A diverse group of aromatic substances.” University of California, Davis, Waterhouse Lab. 2015. https://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/whats-in-wine/norisoprenoids.
Meadows, Allen and Douglas Barzelay. Burgundy Vintages: A History from 1845. Burghound Books, 2018.
Patterson, Tim. “Inquiring Winemaker: Double-Edged Volatile Sulfur Compounds.” Wines Vines Analytics. November, 2008. https://winesvinesanalytics.com/columns/section/24/article/59878/Double-Edged-Volatile-Sulfur-Compounds.
Waterhouse, Andrew, Gavin Sacks and David Jeffrey. Understanding Wine Chemistry. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
This article is the best thing to happen so far in 2020! Really informative and brought together many forms of thought while fleshing it all out logically.
I had one other question pertaining to the topic and please pardon my mediocre understanding. There are many white wine (chardonnay specifically) producers that are intentionally using ‘brown juice’ instead of green to go into fermentation. The brown juice is, again pardon my potential misunderstanding, when the polyphenol oxidase reacts with polyphenol/tannin chains, oxidizes them, and brings them out of suspension for a less structured (texture loss supplemented by barrel ferment/lees) and more importantly more ‘bulletproof’ to prevent that reaction later in the aging process that would be harmful to the wine.
Has any research been done on this and have there been any findings as to the effect it has on aging potential?
Thank you again for this article. It was fun and informative and I learned a ton!
Hi Hamilton, it's a great question that you pose.
As you mention, hyperoxidation (brown-juice winemaking) is used to remove the phenolic compounds that are susceptible to browning from the juice. Technically speaking, it is mostly small bitter and astringent phenolic compounds that are removed, not tannins, which are found in small concentrations in most white wine.
The idea here is that by removing the compounds that cause browning, there is less potential for browning later. A number of studies have demonstrated that these wines are more color stable and since color is an important aspect of wine's ageability, these wines may be considered more ageworthy. Hyperoxidation also reduces bitterness and astringency and this difference becomes more apparent during aging.
While I couldn't find a good study of how these wines age, it's worth noting that some small phenolic compounds (which have no aroma) break down over time into pleasant-smelling aromatic compounds associated with aged wine. Based on this, it's totally possible that wines made using hyperoxidation may ultimately be less complex in the long run.
Thank you for the clarity on the compounds and the thoughtful response. I guess we will see in 20 years or so when the wines age! The tough part are there are so many factors at play clearly.
I had no idea about the potential lack of complexity but that is sound logic for sure.