A question that seems to pop up every now and then at a wine store – “How do I know what wines to cellar and what to drink now?” While it’s a question that can be answered, it’s not always cut and dry. Most wines are meant to be enjoyed within a year but some wines that are produced are intended to improve with age, becoming smoother and more complex over time as the harsh tannins break down. So how do we know which wines will age well? Sommeliers look for characteristics like the tannin structure, alcohol level, acidity, and residual sugar.
Grape skins have naturally occurring polyphenols called tannins, which are released from the skins, seeds, and stems when they’re pressed, or the oak barrels wine is aged in. The more contact the juice has with the skins, seeds, and stems results in a higher tannin content, which is why red wines have stronger tannins than white wines. These tannins give a characteristic of dryness to wines which you may have noticed in red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Additionally, tannins are a natural antioxidant that act as a preservative and aid in protecting wines as they mature. While it may seem that wines with higher tannin content are meant to be aged, there’s more to it than that. Since tannins can be imparted both from the grape skins and oak barrels, wines need to be balanced with both types of tannins in order to possess the structure needed for the wine to properly age.
Aside from the tannins, the alcohol level and acidity play huge roles in a wines ability to age. More often, non-fortified wines with the capability to be cellared are going to have a lower alcohol content, because with a higher ABV it would be at risk of spoilage. Now when it comes to acidity, it’s just the opposite. As a wine ages it gradually mellows out, so wines with a higher acidity will maintain an appropriate level of body and complexity. In terms of residual sugar, dessert wines like port tend to age the best because like tannins, sugar acts as a natural preservative even if the alcohol content is low.
All these characteristics help identify which wines can age well, but don’t forget that how you store the wine is crucial. They need a dark, climate controlled place that maintains a constant, cool temperature allowing them to age properly, and evenly. Higher temperatures can cause changes in the wines structure from accelerating the chemical reactions that need to take place slowly to smooth the wine’s tannins appropriately.
There are a multitude of things to think about when deciding which wines to cellar, but anyone can do it when they’re equipped with the right information! One great resource for finding wines that age well is using Robert Parker Wine Advocate's Vintage Chart. The Vintage Chart is a guide that Robert Parker, world renowed Wine Critic, updates every year with his rating on vintages and their maturity from famous wine regions around the world. You can even download his chart in pdf form to keep on hand!