You bought that special bottle so long ago. You squirreled it away, secret and safe, for the perfect occasion. The reviews all said that it would be good for “15 to 20 years.” Tonight is the night.
After years of hunting, that perfect bottle of 1982 left bank Bordeaux is in your grasp. You swallowed your doubts, grabbed your wallet, and finally the tome of the perfect vintage arrived.
Mom always did have a knack for keeping things. Old bell bottoms that saved Halloween that one year, the set of gilded tea cups which make tea parties extra special, but wait — is that a bottle of wine?
Volumes of quotes and anecdotes exist on the virtues or vices of aged wine. From what wine will age well to how to deal with the small blanket of sediment it leaves in the bottle, we’re here to walk you through that old bottle.
Make no mistake, wine is a perishable good and none of it lasts forever as a drinkable beverage. While most wine produced is made with the intention of being enjoyed young and fresh, there are some genies in the bottle that need a bit more bottle time to grant their tasty wine wish.
Early on these bundles of tough tannins and disjointed flavors are off putting, the inevitable consequence of future greatness.
There are tried and true long distance champions, there are diamonds in the rough, and there are the unexpected underdogs. They all have a few things in common, not the least of which is the dedication of wine growers and winemakers to make a wine that relaxes into greatness over time.
Wine is bottled poetry, sure, but it is also bottled chemistry. The complex chemical reactions that happen in any given wine bottle are remarkable. While we’ll delve into finer points of these chemical processes later, it’s important to know that these reactions of sugar, acid, and phenolic compounds (notably tannin) alter the aroma, color, mouthfeel, and taste of wine.
To some the alterations are profound, making wine a rare consumable good that potentially improves with age. To others the experience is a new gateway to an illustrious rumor of remarkable complexity in wine. In either case, knowledge is power and proper tools are key.
About 3% of wine produced is built to stand the test of time. Often called tight and austere, these wines benefit from age. Aging changes wine, but does not universally improve or worsen it. What happens? In a word: chemistry.
Short chains of sugars, acids, and phenolic compounds found in all wine naturally combine to form longer chain compounds over time. These longer chains fall out of suspension in the form of sediment. These sediments along with potassium and tartaric acid crystals form over the years, especially when kept at cool temperatures such as a winery or storage cellar.
The difference between the 3% of wine built to age and the other 97% lies in those terms: tight and austere. Wine build to age has a striking balance of the building blocks; sugars, acids, and phenolic compounds. This wine does not taste open and inviting young but rather derive complexity and lushness over time as the chemical process of aging takes place. It’s much like giving the wine a longer runway from which to take off.
Often the most daunting part of opening a bottle of aged wine is just that: opening the bottle.
A time-honored bottle closure, cork is necessarily flexible to fit into the bottle neck while also expanding to ensure that no leaks (wine, air, or otherwise) occur at the only opening to an otherwise hermetically sealed glass bottle. It’s a double-edged, er, cork. This allows the cork to fit tightly into the bottle but cork itself is not impervious to age. Cork can lose some of its elasticity, becoming brittle and causing the cork to crumble under the unkind invasion of a standard corkscrew.
We suggest that you have an ah-so cork remover handy. We love our two-step waiter’s corkscrew, rabbit, and butterfly as much as anyone, but the ah-so is the only tool for this job.
Your ah-so will have two flat tipped prongs attached to a wide oval handle. Slip the longest of the prongs in between the cork and glass on one side and gently wiggle it down until the second prong is level and inserted between the cork and glass on the opposite side. With both prongs in place on opposite sides of the cork, gently wiggle the ah-so down along the sides of the cork until the handle sits atop the bottle. Then gently turn and pull, turn and pull the cork out.
It takes time, but it’s so much easier than straining your wine through a mesh sieve into a decanter. But, on the off chance you shatter a cork into your wine bottle, just strain the bottle contents through a simple mesh sieve (or a clean household flour sifter).
Speaking of decanter
We mentioned sediment earlier as a byproduct of the aging process. Decanting a wine off its sediment reduces the amount of sediment in your glass. Though considered good luck in some countries, a generous serving of sediment is a gritty surprise for unsuspecting drinkers.
Simply pour your wine into a decanter and let the sediment settle for a few minutes. Once your wine has cleared, gently pour it into your glassware of choice (we’re not judging that red solo cup). As you continue to pour the wine, your decanter will aid you by reserving a small amount of wine with the sediment contained in the decanter. Unless, of course, you celebrate April Fool’s Day with good wine. In which case, have fun!
What to expect in your glass
Gaze longingly at your glass (a show of restraint, but worth it). For both red and white wine of a certain age you’ll find that an amber hue has imbued the wine with its glow. Red wines go through a lovely brick and tawny color phase while white wines show golden and flaxen colors.
Look closer. Do you see small flecks of sediment or crystals? Over time sediment forms because of the combining of short chain compounds into longer compounds which fall out of suspension. Complex compounds of acids, sugars, alcohols, and polyphenols make up those little flecks. Crystals are a result of the crystallization of acids in the wine and are common in high acid red and white wines both dry and sweet. In Europe they are considered a sign of good luck and good health. Warning: they are bitter and, for lack of a better term, mouth puckeringly acidic.
Give your glass a sniff. Smell that leather in your red? Smell the petrol in your white? The chemical combinations which form sediment and crystals also alter the aromatic quality of wine. Aged wine develops the complex smells of age and chemical development, often called tertiary aromas.
You’ve been patient, take that first sip. Mmmm… that smooth and rich complexity, that velvety luxury. Yep, you guessed it: the chemical processes which create sediment, altering the color and smell of wine, alter the taste as well. The mature stage in an aged wines life can be transporting. For some it’s an acquired taste. Take your time, have some cheese, enjoy the moment. These are the flavors of a summer from many years back.
If you’re wary of the last bits of sediment, you can use a large bowled glass (a burgundy glass works well). The large bowl acts in much the same way as a decanter, holding back just a splash of wine and keeping the sediment captive.
Speaking of captivity, you go enjoy that wine. I’ve kept you here long enough mulling over the sediment of time. Cheers!