Aging (or ageing) properties have been known as far back as the Ancient Greeks and Romans. However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the trend to age wine was generally discontinued. Most wines produced in Northern Europe were light bodied, pale colored and low in alcohol.
Although many follow the cliche that a wine improves with time, this is only true depending on a variety of factors. French Bordeaux wines such as Sauternes are known to be able to age up to 35 years. However, master of wine Jancis Robinson commented that only around the top 10% of all red wine and top 5% of whites can improve significantly enough to make drinking more enjoyable at 5 years of age than at 1 year of age.
The first factor that affects how a wine can age, is the grape and the terroir. A wine is given its aging properties from the phenols, or tannins, that come from that skin, leaves and stem of the grape. These acidic preservatives are important to the long-term maturing of the wine. This is why white wines do not age well as the skins have been removed in the making. Over time, the tannins will precipitate out of the wine becoming sediment in the bottle, making the flavor and acidity well balanced.
Wines with high levels of tannins include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah. The Tignanello from Italy is a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet franc – all tannic wines with high aging potential. More wines with aging potential include Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
Another big factor in aging wine is how it is kept. If not kept in a consistently dark, cool place such as a cellar, it is much more likely to go bad in a shorter period of time. It has also been said that the shape of the bottle can alter the aging time too.
Interestingly, Matt Kramer wrote two online articles including comments on aging wine. In his first article he basically concludes that any good red wine should be aged 10 years at least. He states ‘And that after 10 years of age in a cool spot, nearly all fine wines can give you the best of both worlds: a still-youthful fruitiness and the greater dimensionality of flavor that only age can offer.’ In the second article this opinion is reversed to ‘There are some, such as as German and Alsatian Rieslings, Napa Valley Cabernets and Hungarian Tokajis, reward aging. But the majority of wines that are made now would only benefit from a maximum of 5 years.The bottom line: Today’s wines are far more drinkable, far more gratifying, far more rewarding when drunk younger than their counterparts of 20 years ago.’
Can three years offer that much of a difference in wine production or is this just being self-contradictory? Probably a bit self-contradictory, but it is true that wine production methods have changed over time, meaning tannin levels are lower.
To sum it up briefly, aging wine is sometimes beneficial, but not necessary.