at every single tasting i have attended, someone has invariably asked "how long will this wine age?". considering that 90 percent of all wines will be drunk within 1 year of bottling, why even asked? it is an important question mind you but the answer is not all that simple.
first, not all wines are made to be aged. second, not all grape varieties age at the same pace. third, each vintage, because of weather and other natural factors, yield different ripening levels that will affect the ageing potential of the wine/vintage. and last, there are many different reasons, all valid, why one would want to or not to age a wine - mainly to do with style and most importantly taste.
in the old days, wines sold to overseas market were transported over long distances in wood barrels mainly because wood was widely available and it has excellent fluid retention qualities.
the wines were mostly coarse and tough and it was discovered that the time spent during the voyage softened them up and, because wood is porous to oxygen, gave them an "oxidised" character that people came to like or rather to associate with wine.
and so, the ageing process was discovered. since then, the techniques were refined but the objectives have remained the same: soften its tannins, integrate its flavours, and obtain an extra layer of complexity and flavours from the very slow oxygenation that the process invariably exposes the wine to.
today however, most wine drinkers do not have the inclination to age wines and they are looking for wines that are soft, fruity, fresh, and pleasant to drink right away. and so, most wine makers focus on producing this type of wine which makes the following question wholly irrelevant for 90 percent of us.
why age wine?
first, you must like the taste of aged wine. second, the wine must have enough concentration of fruit, and an excellent balance of alcohol versus its acidity (and tannin for reds) otherwise it will not survive the ageing process. last and most importantly, it has to have enough flavours and complexity to begin with - there is no point in ageing something that does not taste like anything or that is too simple and straightforward to evolve into anything more complex. the ageing will not "improve" the wine because there is nothing to improve!
how to choose wine to be sure it is "ready" to drink?
here is what 90 percent of wine drinkers would like to know. unfortunately, there are no clear cut answers to that either.
white wines are always ready to drink and some, if they have the characteristics described above, can age for some time especially sweet wines, riesling, chenin blanc, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, viognier, and wines with majority semillon.
light red wines made from "light" grape varieties and made to be drunk young are a good start. examples are: beaujolais, loire, cotes du rhone, languedoc, rioja joven, bardolino, new zealnd pinot noir, valpolicella, zinfandel, and merlot of any country.
usually, wines made with "heavier" grapes like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, carignan, sangiovese or made to be aged for a while like a bordeaux-medoc, brunello, amarone, barossa shiraz, rioja reserva, napa valley cabernet need a little softening before being pleasant to drink.
a good vintage chart compiled by a super taster will generally help and so will the recommendations of a trusted shop assistant in a good "caviste".
in the end, what does an aged wine taste like?
in an aged white, the crisp, fresh fruits and floral notes of youth will give way to "dried" characteristics. for example, in a gewurztraminer, it will go from fresh rose petals to faded roses to dried flowers. vegetal notes will become like dried grass, tobacco, and herbal infusion (tea), and fruit notes will evolve like apricot to dried apricot and raisin. all aged whites will have notes of beewax, and some honey.
in an aged red, the tannins will evolved into a velvety texture with suppleness and finesse. the flavours, like white wines, will mature from crisp, fresh aromas to dried fruits and flowers and further evolving to notes of chocolate, coffee, toast and then to animal characteristics like leather, meat juices, and game. some will also evolve into mushroom, forest undergrowth, humus, truffles, and tar.
not exactly what modern wine drinkers have come to expect from a glass of wine...
and so, aged wines are not only an acquired taste but they also require dedication, ideal storing conditions, and the right "material" to begin with.
the problem though is that, as you become addicted to wine, such aged characteristics become the holy grail to seek for and it's all downhill from there on...