One common myth that many beginning wine collectors believe is that they can store red wine for years, no matter the varietal. In reality, only some red wines will last for decades in your cellar; most wine (an estimated 99 percent, according to some experts) doesn’t gain any benefit from aging, so you’re better off drinking these bottles within a year or two. I proved this point once by accidentally ‘aging’ a bottle of Beaujolais–I had forgotten about the bottle for a couple of years, and by the time I got around to opening it, the wine was oxidized. Not all red wines are built to last, and their ageability depends on varietal, vintage, and quality.
Red Wines You Should Drink Now
Most wines you buy in a supermarket won’t benefit from aging. That’s because winemakers craft these wines to taste their best immediately upon release, and they aren’t focused as much on complex flavors that will develop over time. The grapes for these wines are typically mass-produced in enormous vineyards, with high yields and bold, one-note flavors. Keep these types of wines for no more than two years; the sooner you drink them, the better.
There are also some collectable, valuable red wines that still only last a couple of years in a cellar. In France, Beaujolais is best drunk within three years of purchase, since it’s a light red wine with low tannin. These tannins are an essential part of how a wine ages–the higher the tannins are, the more likely the wine will age for decades. You can apply this same logic to find out how to store red wine for every occasion, even if you’ve never seen a particular varietal before. First, find out how much tannin is in the wine. Low tannin grapes like Gamay, Zweigelt, Lambrusco, and Dolcetto tend to expire within a handful of years, although you can find some rare vintages that will last longer. These high-end vintages usually have higher tannins or acidity that allow them to withstand cellaring.
Wines That Last 3-5 Years
Light red wines with slightly higher tannins and acidity than Dolcetto or Beaujolais can last anywhere from three to five years, depending on the varietal. Most Pinot Noir lasts this long no matter the quality, although if grape quality is especially high, you can store Pinot Noir for as long as 10 years or more. I’ve successfully stored Oregon Pinot Noir for five years and saw a major improvement in flavor, but the longest-lived Pinot Noir is Grand Cru Burgundy. You can find vintages from 1990 that still taste delicious today. Generally, any light red wine that has moderate tannins, high acidity, and complex flavors (usually achieved in top-tier terroirs where the weather is ideal, like that of Grand Cru or Premier Cru producers) will have the longest ageability. Zinfandel, Garnacha, and Petite Sirah are other examples of light red wines with moderate tannins that usually peak in maturity after about five years in a cellar.
Wines That Last 10-20 Years
The wines you’ll want to focus most heavily on as a beginning collector are bolder red wines that will easily cellar for 10 or 20 years, like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Super Tuscans from Italy, Sangiovese, and Malbec. With lighter red wines, you can quickly tell how long they will age when you look at how much tannin is present in the wine–moderate tannin will almost always outlive little tannin. With bolder reds, it gets a bit more complicated, since these wines are all relatively high in tannin already. To tell the difference between a bold red wine that will last 10 years and a wine that will last 20 years, you need to look at winemaking techniques and the region in which it was grown.
Generally, Old World Merlot from France will cellar longer than New World Merlot from regions like California because Old World wines tend to have more complexity. They will both stay in a cellar for a decade or more without spoiling, but a more complex wine will improve in taste more than a bolder, jammier wine. While there are exceptions, usually New World winemakers craft bold reds in very warm climate conditions that promote plenty of sugar in the grapes, which results in a high alcohol content. By contrast, Old World reds tend to grow under slightly cooler conditions, and winemakers focus more on subtle flavors that only come out after the wine has aged for a decade or so.
Wines That Last 20+ Years
You can store red wine like quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, red Bordeaux, and Amarone for more than 20 years, with many lasting as long as 50 or more years. What gives these wines their staying power? Balance. While you should look at tannins in light reds and complexity in bolder reds like Merlot, multi-decade reds need to have both of these qualities, plus a healthy balance between acidity and sweet fruit.
As a wine ages, it loses its fresh, fruity flavors, becoming more earthy and smooth. It needs high, structured tannins, sharp acidity, and strong fruit flavors from the start to survive this process with its flavors intact. Great ancient wines will actually be difficult to drink in their youth because all of these components overwhelm the palate, but as these types of wine age, their tight tannins mellow out, their acidity becomes a pleasantly dull spice on the tongue, and their fruit flavors begin to taste more soft and complex. Look for tasting notes that talk about the wine’s balance, as well as its intensity of flavor in its youth, if you want a red wine that will last through your lifetime.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.
Ryan has worked in every restaurant capacity from bartender to management, and in wine distribution as a consultant and advisor to Chicago’s most elite restaurants and retailers. As a new member of Vinfolio’s Executive Fine Wine Specialists, he is thrilled to share his expertise and passion for wine. Outside of the office, he can be found learning to cultivate vines in the garden, with a glass of White Burgundy in hand, or hiking with his wife and dogs.