Fine wine gets better with age. It’s a saying we’ve heard a hundred times, but what does it mean? Wine is a unique drink in that it has the ability to last for decades, even centuries, but this doesn’t mean every bottle is worth tucking under the stairs.
It is seemingly harder and harder to find old wine, such is the appetite for young and fresh examples, but it is not impossible. Given that many red wines may spend almost 2 years in the winery, that it’s not considered old for at least 5 years (or thereabouts) is wholly unscientific. After 5 years, it is safe to say that most wines will be starting to show signs of development. All grapes have different potential for ageing; so too, does the winemakers hand effect the ability for the wine to age, so unfortunately there is no steadfast rule on the evolution of wine. As is so often the case, we have to speak in generalisations.
Sparkling wine is quite remarkable in that it can seem young and fresh for so long. Vintage bubbles, either locally made or those from Champagne or Franciacorta, are the very best examples of the style. They are designed to age. That means there is a level of complexity expected from this wine as it gets older which will make it more interesting and delicious. Essentially, it is the acid that gives these wines longevity, so a ten year old example can seem incredibly youthful. The signs of aging in these wines are not dissimilar to white wine; the colour will deepen and the flavours will become richer and fuller. Notes of biscuit, toast, nuts and mushrooms can also be expected of older examples, quite a departure from the electric floral and citrus expressions of their youth.
White table wine (without bubbles) follows a similar pattern to sparkling wines, although in general it happens faster. Expect a 10 year old white wine to be quite developed, unless you are drinking Hunter Semillon or something similar. In white still wines, the colour will deepen, the flavours will become richer and they will be far more rounded. This feeling of being rounded or softer has to do with how we perceive the acidity in the wine. It is hard to describe what flavours to expect, as the variety of grapes means that there are countless variables.
It was the Americans that coined the term Fumé blanc, a neat collaboration of Pouilly Fumé and Sauvignon Blanc, and it is a term that is now widely used to indicate that the sauvignon Blanc that you are about to drink has been fermented in oak. Jericho wines from the Adelaide Hills, Crittenden Estate from Mornington both produce a Fumé blanc, as do Singlefile in WA and Taltarni here in Victoria. Like so many labelling terms in Australia, there is no need rule that stipulates that a winery must call a barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc “Fumé blanc”; however should you see it, you will be prepared for a difference. De Bortoli and Port Phillip Estate both make an oak-fermented Sauvignon that is simply labelled Sauvignon, leaving the “blanc” off the label to give a slight indication to expect something a little different.
Red wine is the clear favourite for ageing. It doesn’t mean it’s the best at it, it just holds the people’s imagination as the wine that should be tucked away. As red wine ages, and this might surprise you, it becomes more delicate. It softens and loosens and eventually relinquishes some of its intense colour. The idea that wine gets better with age has more to do with how wine used to be made. Historically, in its youth it was tannic and seemingly aggressive. As this muscly wine slowly evolved and softened it was noticeably more palatable. If you need a good example of this, buy a young Cabernet Sauvignon or another structure-bound red wine from a reputable producer and feel the tannin clinging to your cheeks. This same wine, 3 or 4 years from now, will be more supple and seem fuller. Its journey will eventually yield a delicate and fading beauty, although this may take many years indeed.
Ageing wine is something that all wine lovers should be involved in. If you haven’t found the room under the stairs or the space under your bed, you should certainly seek out old wines to fully enjoy their life cycle. It is becoming all too common to only drink young wine, and we are missing out on something that is truly special.