I am often asked if the wines we make should be cellared or drunk soon. It is a great question to which there are few absolutes. Not all wines benefit from cellaring nor are all wines better drunk young. There is a good deal of mystery behind the ageability of wines, and few experts agree on every aspect of laying down wines! Wine researchers are just now beginning to understand the chemical characteristics of wine that contribute to aging.
We do know that a few factors make a wine a good candidate for cellaring. However, these characteristics require that you are familiar the wine already, requiring you to purchase more than one bottle. These factors are acidity, dissolved oxygen, tannin level, alcohol content, sugar content and varietal. Vintage plays a role as a reflection of each of these characteristics.
For domestic white wines I would recommend drinking them within the first few years of production. Most white wines produced in the States are made to feature fermentation aromas and have very low sugar content. Many whites in the aromatic family are intended to be drunk very young. The exception might be a Riesling or Gewurztraminer that has residual sugar. Most white wines that have residual sugar age better, if they have been well managed in the making and properly sulfured. Some white varietals that feature less fruit and floral aromas can age quite well. Chardonnay and Roussanne blends come to mind. Bubblies tend to age better than still wines.
Red still wines are a better candidate for aging with a few exceptions. Domestically produced wines that are high in alcohol, very high in pH (and mostly low in acid), and high in tannin do not do well with cellaring, contrary to common belief! Although it is common knowledge to cellar highly astringent wines, high pH and alcohol can deconstruct a wine over time. Unfortunately, many domestically produced red wines fall into this category. These wines might be better at five years with the precipitation of some astringency, but may fall apart in ten.
So which wines should I cellar?
Balanced red wines are best to cellar. If the wine has lower alcohol (around 14% and under), medium tannin and higher acidity it will most likely cellar well. The pH is likely to be lower with higher acidity and lower alcohol, as alcohol is an indication of sugar levels at harvest. Over ripe fruit can lead to imbalanced wines with high pH and high alcohol. The presence of tannin allows for the formation of polymeric compounds which precipitates anthocyanins (color tannins), acid and colloids with aging. The chemical change of wine over time can foster a more complex imprint of subtle chemical compounds often masked by the fruity aromas and harsh tannins in a younger wine.
My advice on wines to cellar…
Gorgeously balance wines; cellar as long as you like, depending on varietal recommendations. Sangioveses, Barberas, and Southern Rhone blends might be best drunk under 5 years. 10 years for a Syrah based blend and a Tempranillo. Bordeaux blends like our Tyger, Tyger and Goat Boy can age for a very long while!
Highly astringent wines with low acid; Fruit bomb wines that scorch your taste buds can do well with a few years of aging. However, be wary of aging these wines too long as they can chemically fall apart over time. I would recommend a 3 to 5 year plan for these wines. The intention is to age the wine to precipitate the tannin but not loose the fruit quality. The sweet spot for these wine might come earlier than expected, as high alcohol can damage the subtle compounds in these wines. When the fruit disappears, they can simply be flat and hot. (The better option is to not buy these wines at all, or endure the fried tongue effect)
Fruity dry white wines; Drink young, within the first two years.
Ice wines and dessert wines; age these wines in excellent cellar conditions. The sugar content often protects the fruit components that would otherwise be destroyed by the high alcohol levels.