When I took a family wine tour of my hometown near Napa Valley a few years ago, we were all ecstatic about trying a 25-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon that my friend had kept on her estate for a special occasion. We opened the bottle, savored the intense violet bouquet, and took our first sip. It was dull, chewy and probably should have been opened five years earlier. My friend was crushed. Thankfully, there are 10 qualities that every great wine has to tell you how long it will cellar.
Firm, Balanced Tannins
When it comes to aging, price and terroir mean nothing compared to well-structured tannins. The best wines to invest years into are those that have the tightest tannins possible for the varietal. As a caveat, avoid any wine described as “bitter” or “acidic” by early wine tasters, as this is typically a sign of too much tannin that will likely drown out the wine’s subtler flavors.
The perfect tannin balance can be found in a wine like the Gaja Langhe Sperss, which uses cool temperature fermentation to bring out the naturally heavy tannins in the wine. Most Nebbiolo wines are finicky in the cellar, but this one has the tightly structured tannins necessary to create the perfect vintage for aging.
How do you tell whether a wine has a low pH level if you haven’t uncorked it yet? Look to grapes from cool climates for a naturally high level of acidity. The cooler climate causes the grapes to grow slowly, lowering the pH of the juices inside.
That does not mean that cold-growth grapes are your only option for a wine that ages well. Research whether a winery from a warm climate, such as Napa Valley, adds tartaric acid to its batch. This addition greatly improves the wine’s lasting power. Or choose only late harvests from warm climates to ensure the wine will cellar beautifully.
Vintages that have been finely filtered lose some of their vigor as they age. Wines have essential phenolic solids that come from the grape skins and oak barrels as they are processed. Without these solids, wine is clearer and sometimes silkier, but it also loses the aging potential of wines that still have their solids. Look for traditionalist wine producers who take a hands-off approach to fermentation, allowing the wine to retain a healthy dusting of sediment.
The Right Varietal for the Job
Trying to cellar a Dolcetto for more than two years is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. Even poorly-grown Bordeaux vintages last longer than the finest Dolcetto bottles in the world. Dolcetto producers never allow the grapes to steep in their own skin for long, since high tannins are the enemy of this varietal.
Instead, focus your attention on the three varietals that consistently call for the longest cellaring times: red Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. When you buy an excellent vintage of one of these wines, you can expect at least a decade or more of cellaring before they reach their peak.
Rocky, Cool Terroirs
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of slow-growing grapes in order to produce long-lasting wines, and one of the easiest ways to stunt a grape’s early growth is through the grapevine’s roots. When you look for terroirs that combine a cool climate with a deep, rocky terrain, you know you will get a wine with high tannins and acid levels.
Bordeaux is famous for its rough, limestone-rich terrain that makes it difficult for grape vines to thrive. The stress this puts on the vines produces yields that are small, but have more complex flavors than robust grapes grown on fertile soil. The best Bordeaux vintages come from First Growth appellations, such as Medoc, Pauillac and Margaux, home to premium First Growth estate Chateau Margaux.
Dry Weather Vintages
Weather plays an integral role in how well a wine ages, as you will find anytime you drink wine that’s been through a drought. Wines grown in Napa during a drought are known for having cellaring times well beyond what they should for their terroir and varietals.
Too much rainfall causes vines to sprout thick leaves that shield grapes from the sun, and lock in dangerous molds from morning dew. Wines grown in dry heat not only taste better than rain-soaked peers, but they last anywhere from five to 10 years longer than average.
One of the most important descriptors to seek in a wine tasting review is the presence of oak notes in a vintage. Wine tasters find this quality in wines that have been fermented in oak barrels, allowing the rich proteins from the wood to seep into the wine.
Oak barrelled wines age well because the proteins in oak wood naturally protect wine from bacteria as the liquid ages. The flavors of the oak also come through the wine even after it has lost some of its more subtle notes over the decades, giving tasters the heady nose that comes with many wines in their golden years. Fruit finishes are fleeting, but a sturdy oak base sticks with a wine through its entire life.
Sitting in on a tasting for a bottle you want to buy and noting the wine’s color will tell you a great deal about how well the vintage will age. For a red wine, look for an even, compact rim against the glass, surrounded by an opaque red or purple hue underneath. Wines that have orange tones, or that taper off in color around the edges, are a sign of low-tannin or already-aged wine.
For a white wine, be even pickier about color before you decide to cellar it. Only choose vintages that have a rich gold, saturated color along the rim. Pale straw colors point to a wine that is naturally ill-equipped for aging, while brown tones are a sign of a wine already past its cellaring prime.
The best older wines I’ve ever tasted came from thick, full-bodied varietals that had body. These are the wines that are almost always less fined, with broad, bold tannins.
A wine begins to thin as it gets older, in both texture and flavor. That’s why young wines designed for cellaring have flavors that are almost overwhelmingly intense, with textures so thick you nearly have to chew them. As the decades pass in the cellar, these intense flavors of youth soften until they reach a sophisticated, mature peak.
Wine experts rarely acknowledge the importance of bottle size in wine aging, even though it is an essential factor that can make or break a vintage. Look for wine bottles that have a 3-liter option if you are serious about storing older wines. The 750 ml bottles age more quickly than larger bottles due to the percentage of wine that is exposed to oxygen. Oxidation is the most common problem older wines have, so limiting a wine’s exposure to oxygen as much as possible ensures that it will stay fresh and lively even 50 years down the road.
Choosing a Wine to Age
As a serious collector, you need to be aware of all of these qualities as you shop for the newest additions to your collection. When you use Vinfolio’s VinCellar tool, you get the latest information on expert tastings for every bottle you own, as well as reminders when a wine is ready to drink.
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.