What makes a wine age?

By Jeremy Maarschalk

Friday - 11 August 2023



Wine is a revered elixir that has captivated palates for centuries, with different styles, varietals, and terroir all culminating in the symbol of celebration, the symbol of progress, and the symbol of passion. While many beverages lose their charm over time, wine has the unique ability to evolve and transform into something even more extraordinary.


What is it that allows this product of passion to age so gracefully?



The Grapes

We will start from the ground up, the journey to a well-aged wine begins in the vineyard, where the choice of the cultivar plays a crucial role. Varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, and Riesling, to name a few, have an inherent ability to age better than other cultivars. This is due to the varietal's thicker skins, higher acidity, and structured tannin, which all act as a natural preservative.

The tannin in a wine is one of the most important qualities in the wine's ability to age, and the tannin is extracted from the skins, stems, and seeds and is what gives wine its astringent structure or body which allows the wine to age too gracefully.

Not only do we have to look at the varietal chosen for the wine but the terroir, a warmer climate with more sunshine will grow grapes with a thicker skin and thus a more intense tannin thus a winemaker may not want to work the skins as intensely to limit the astringent tannin in the end product.

The Winemaking Process:

In the cellar, a winemaker has many techniques and decisions to make that will affect the ageing potential of the wine.
Fermentation and extraction methods are key determinants of a wine’s ageing characteristics. Extraction refers to the skin contact period that the wine is afforded, a longer period allows for greater tannin extraction thus enhancing the wine's ability to age. Maturing the wine in oak barrels also influences the wine’s flavour profile as the oak imparts its own flavour onto the wine while the porous nature of the vessel enables slow oxygenation of the wine allowing the qualities of the wine to integrate harmoniously.
But what is it that is in the wine that promotes its ability to age? The two most influential qualities that allow a wine to mature gracefully into the future are the wine's acidity and its tannins.

Acidity

Acidity is a fundamental aspect of wine that influences not only the balance of the wine but its ageing ability. Wines with a higher level of acidity tend to age more gracefully as the acidity acts as a natural preservative helping to maintain the freshness and vibrancy in the wine thus giving the wine life into its older years.

Grapes grown in a cooler environment will exhibit a higher acidity which is beneficial for ageing. During the winemaking process, a winemaker will intentionally employ techniques to preserve the acidity of the wine to afford the wine the ability to age.

Tannin

Tannin plays a crucial role in wines' ability to age, they are responsible for the wine's mouthfeel and structure, but their impact goes beyond that. Over time, tannins undergo chemical changes, gradually softening and integrating into the wine. This process, known as polymerization, results in a smoother, more complex wine. The popular understanding is that only wines with intense tannins can age but this is simply not true, wines with well-integrated tannins will age, and even wines with softer tannins will age gracefully for many many years.


Storage Conditions

Proper storage conditions are paramount for wines to age gracefully. Factors such as temperature, humidity, light, and vibration significantly impact a wine's ageing trajectory.

Ideally, wines should be stored in a cool, dark, and humid environment with minimal temperature fluctuations. A consistent temperature, typically between 14°C - 16°C, slows the influence of oxygen. The storage area should also be dark and devoid of vibrations that can disrupt the sediment.

Ageing wine is akin to witnessing the transformation of a work of art. While specific grape varieties, winemaking techniques, and storage conditions contribute to a wine's ageing potential. It is the delicate dance of these factors that truly creates a wine worthy of time. 

So, the next time you encounter a well-aged wine, savour the experience of enjoying it.

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