What’s in a Number?

Most people think that an aged wine is a better wine. But only about 5 percent of wine sold is destined for a cellar; the rest is consumed within two hours of purchase. The small percentage that are created for a long shelf life often fetch high prices. Still, when chosen correctly, sipping an aged wine can be a memorable culinary thrill well worth the wait and a special way to commemorate an anniversary or toast a celebration. Age worthiness may be a bit of a gamble, but the patience and risk have a payoff.

Aging wine is the gentle process of oxygen slowly working to unite all the different components of fermented grape juice. This process begins immediately in winemaking and continues once a wine is bottled and stored. Oxygen helps the molecules of wine to fuse, but it can only do so much. A poorly made wine will not improve with age.

Wine is a combination of several types of acids, alcohols, sugar, potassium, water and phenolic compounds. The balance between the alcohol, acids and sugar is key, if they are not balanced as the wine ages, one of those will fade faster than another and the wine will taste too alcoholic, sweet or tart. Wines must also be stored properly to capture the process fully, that means below 60 degrees, under low light, with little vibration and humidity of about 70 percent.

When choosing a wine to age, look at its history. Pick a wine from a producer that has a legacy of making age-worthy wines or one from a smaller winemaking sub-region or a single vineyard. And no screwcaps. Any wine worth aging will have a cork to allow the slow oxidation process to happen. Remember that no matter what, up to 5 percent have the potential to be “corked,” meaning they develop an unpleasant flavor from a damaged or decayed cork. And even if one special bottle is all that was in mind, buy several or a case (12) to drink every few years and test how the wine is developing. Wine is alive, it has peaks and valleys and an eventual demise. Producers and wine educators will usually suggest a range for a wine’s peak drinkability, but it’s best not to adopt a strictly wait-and-see policy. If a wine hits its peak at 30, it might be done at 40.

The biggest reward for patience is the once-in-a-lifetime experience of drinking history. The 100-plus year-old Port, the 25-year-old Champagne, the 40-year-old merlot from Bordeaux… These are all wines that I remember the taste of years later. Drinking an old wine is an event to be shared with special company. It’s a thrill to see how a young wine’s vibrant fruit flavors and aromas mature into complex tastes, like a palpable cherry scent that evolves to a muted character of cola. The discovery of the new and multifaceted flavors can be intoxicating.

Shopping for Shelf Life
These regions and producers create reliably age-worthy wines.

Bordeaux region: The big daddy of ageable wines with an incredibly long, prestigious list. Château Cheval Blanc and Château Lafite-Rothschild are my favorites—if money isn’t an issue.

Burgundy region: This central France region’s list of great producers is long. In western Meursault, known for its whites, start with small domains like Bouzereau. In the red-producing subregion of Charmes-Chambertin, try Domaine Henri Richard, Domaine Perrot-Minot or Domaine Huguenot.

Forman Cabernet Sauvignon: I’ve enjoyed these Napa Valley wines at over 20-years old. They can fool any Bordeaux aficionado.

Krug Champagnes: These French bubblies are wonderful with 20 years age. I enjoyed a 1989 this year.