Aging Wine: The Little Known Truth

Alissa Bica | Feb 28, 2023

“I’ve been holding these wines for years,” my dad tells me excitedly as we hurry toward the basement to grab some liquid goodies for our Christmas dinner. “1995. French,” he assures me. Sounds promising. Images of Burgundy Corton or Bordeaux Latour dance like sugar plums in my head. He reaches into the bar and pulls out a bottle. It’s a 1995… Beaujolais. My heart sinks. I know it won’t be good but I humor him hoping for a Christmas miracle. Instead, we got Christmas vinegar.

You may be asking yourself, “Why? Don’t all wines get better with age?” The answer, alas, is no. Only one percent (yes I said it, only one percent!) of wines age. The rest are made to drink in the first 3-5 years. And as producers scramble more and more to cater to consumer tastes, because who has patience anymore these days, the number could become even less. Don’t worry, you and my father are not the only ones who didn’t know this. I didn’t know it myself until I began studying for my sommelier exams, where it was one of the first things they taught us because so few people do. So how do you avoid your own wine disaster and vinegar puckered face in the scene I described above? Read the following tips.


Red Wines that Age

The skins of grapes contain tannins. Tannins cause a dry, astringent quality that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth when you drink certain wines. They are also the reason red wine often pairs with fatty meats. The fat makes the tannins feel less harsh, and the tannins make the fat feel less greasy. Tannins also contain natural preservatives so wines with a very high level of tannin age longer.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a very small grape so the skin to fruit ratio is much higher than other varieties. Therefore, it’s a great grape to age. Merlot, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Pinot Noir are other grapes that can age if (and this is a big IF) the winemakers choose to make the wine in a style of higher tannin. They can do this by picking the grapes earlier and letting the juice sit on the skins for prolonged periods.

The regions that usually have wines that age are: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Barolo, Chianti Classico, Super Tuscans, California Cabs from Napa, Sonoma, or Santa Cruz Mountains, and Australian Shiraz.

High end producers in these regions make wines that are extremely tight and tannic upon release. You do not want to drink them right away. If you taste a bunch of new release Bordeaux your tongue quickly feels like sand paper. Take my word for it, it is not a pleasant experience. These producers make wines specifically to age. The fascination is that only old wines develop tertiary notes of mushroom, cigar smoke, leather and deep earth. I know these may not sound intriguing on the page but in the glass an old Bordeaux is so beautiful it can make you cry. After tasting a 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, I literally did.

High end producers chase this experience of beauty in a bottle. To do this, they buy the best land, pick only the best grapes, and use the most expensive oak barrels. Oak also contains its own tannins that help wine age. All of these things are expensive, however, so a good rule of thumb if you’re aging a wine is to first check the region, then the price. If the region is correct, but the price is $25, it’s not going to age. Stick to wines that are $50 and up when it comes to purchasing to age. $100 is even better.

White Wines that Age

Much fewer white wines age. This is because the wines are pressed right away and have less skin contact with tannins. The most likely white grape to age is Chardonnay, and a lot of this has to do with the fact it’s often aged in oak. White Burgundies and California Chards often age well, or wines from the Jura in France because they are made in an oxidative style. This means they are intentionally exposed to oxygen during fermentation, something that is usually a huge no-no. Oxygen gives wines a nutty flavor that can be interesting and, when made in this manner are able to withstand the oxygen encountered over years of aging. Roussanne and Marsanne from the Rhone in France are other possible aging contenders, or Greco de Tufo from Italy.

Usually, whites will not age as long as reds, however. On average, I wouldn’t let a white age for more than 20 years. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule but it’s a gamble. I once had a 1972 Greco de Tufo by Mastroberardino that blew my socks off, but it tasted more sherry-like and nutty so be prepared. A lot of people like to experiment with very old Chardonnays from the 1970’s. This is always interesting because some wines are still kicking, but a lot are nearing the grave. Hold these wines at your own risk.


Price Point

I’m going to hit this one more time. Wines at the grocery store do not age. This is what happened in the story at the top with my father. Someone probably picked him up a decent Beaujolais for $25, and if they had drunk it that night it would’ve been great. But it’s made from the Gamay grape that has very little skin contact or oak and is fashioned to be drunk young. (They even make a category called Beaujolais Nouveau that is meant to drink immediately after harvest).

A $40 Bordeaux will not age, either. In this case, the producer made a choice to cater to the crowd that wants to drink now, and made a lighter fruitier style with less oak or skin contact. There is nothing wrong with drinking these wines, they just can’t age.

Here is a list of producers I recommend for aging. This is not an all-inclusive list, just a few I recommend.

  • Bordeaux: Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Calon Segur, Cos d’Estournal, Chateau Palmer, Chateau Haut Brion, Phelan Segur, Leoville Las Cases, Lynch Bages
  • Burgundy: Domaine de la Romanee Conti, l’Enfant Jesus by Bouchard Pere & Fils, Hospices de Beaune, Georges Latour
  • Rhone: Jean-Louis Chave, E. Guigal, Jaboulet, Beaucastel
  • Super Tuscans: Sassicaia, Tignanello, Brancaia, Ornellaia, Le Macchiole, Luce
  • Cabs from California: Bond, Harlan Estate, Diamond Creek, Mount Eden, Ridge Montebello, Stag’s Leap
  • Cabernet from Lebanon: Chateau Musar (a personal favorite of mine)
  • Australian Shiraz: Penfold’s Grange, d’Arenberg
About the Author

Alissa Bica is a certified sommelier at the Los Angeles restaurant, 71 Above, as well as US tasting coordinator and contributing editor at Wine and Spirits magazine. Every day, she feels humbled that she was able to turn one of her greatest passions into a career. She lives for the “aha!” moments that her guests experience when they taste a Premiere Cru Chablis next to a Napa Chardonnay and appreciate the differences. Her musings on wine, culture, and memory have been published in Wine Enthusiast magazine, and she runs the popular blog, Off the Beaten Wine Path, where she explores rare grape varieties and what their perfect food pairs.

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