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Like a fine wine: the art of aging gracefully

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One of the magical aspects of wine is how gracefully great wines can age. A great wine that may be virtually undrinkable when first bottled can, over the years, transform into something truly beautiful. But how – and why – does this happen? What makes some wines age perfectly, and others fall apart? Why do some wines get better for five years and then get worse, while some can continue to develop over decades?

 

To understand this, we need to first look at tannin. Tannins are those structures imbued in the wine through the skins, seeds, and stems of the grape, as well as through the oak barrels in which much wine is aged. Tannin shows up in wine not as a flavor, but rather as a mouthfeel. It is that slight coating on your tongue, and many people relate it to bitterness. Tea and coffee are both tannic-rich drinks as well, and the mouthfeel of tea is a good way to get a feel for tannin in wine. Chewing seeds is also a fast way to understand tannin.


When a wine is made, these tannins exist in solution in the wine. They have bonded with things and become essentially ‘invisible’ to us – though in the case of red wines they very visibly lend their color to the wine. Over time, as a wine ages, these tannins react with other elements of the wine, until they finally can’t remain in solution anymore, and they precipitate into sediment. This is why older red wines have a collection of sediment at the bottom of the bottle.


When this happens, a few things occur. Most noticeably, the color changes. The wine oxidizes (in red wine this is hard to see, but in tannic white wines you see the wine shift to become more brown). In red wine the red color pigment (anthocyanins) bond to the sediment, and the color lightens (combined with the oxidization this often results in a brick color). The aromas of the wine also shift – what are called reductive aromas (or bouquet) develop and become more pronounced.


Fruit flavors gradually shift into more nuanced flavors, often with more wood and leather. As the tannins mature, they also become softer in the mouth, so what once may have been a hard and biting feel becomes more silky and smooth.


If the acid balance of the wine is ideal, this development can continue for years and years, with ever more nuanced flavors and bouquets coming forward. If the balance was poor, or if there wasn’t sufficient tannin in the initial wine, the wine will become unstructured and fall apart, becoming a mass of bad flavors.


As a rule of thumb, not all wines age well. Cabernet sauvignon tends to age better than others; good chardonnay can age for a long time; great sweet rieslings can age virtually indefinitely (as can a number of other sweet whites); truly spectacular pinot noir can age surprisingly well; merlot on its own tends not to age well, but if balanced with cabernet sauvignon can last for a long time.

 

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