Aging Wine; The Need To Knows

“You get better with age like a fine wine…” ❤️

We’ve all heard sayings like this before that leave us to believe that all fine wine gets better with age.  This is partly true – many fine wines do get better with some age – but which wines are meant for aging and how long they should be aged, is actually quite a complex topic.  Then there are multiple factors that come into play regarding storage/cellar conditions that will either age wine well, or ruin it quickly.

A huge misconception I’ve come across in speaking with friends and family about wine is that it ALL gets better with age.  This is definitely not true!  There is a saying in the wine world that only 1% of wine is actually meant to be aged in the bottle, which means that 99% of the wine on the shelves right now is meant to be consumed within a few short years from now, or today!  More on specific aging times in a moment. I’ll tell you right now, that 1% more than likely didn’t cost less than $20 either, so if you’re hanging on to those $7.99 bottles, it’s time to grab some glasses, or possibly make dinner with some type of a wine sauce!

Wine needs to have certain qualities to give it the ability to age well.  Madeline Puckette, the creator of Wine Folly, gives 4 qualities that you can look for in a wine to determine if it is age worthy:  Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol Level, and Residual Sugar.  [1]

Acidity

The higher the acid in the wine, the better it will age.  When tasting wine, acidity is the factor that makes your mouth water.  It is often described as “crispness.”  Chablis, for example, has a high amount of acidity, and can age well, even though it’s made from white grapes. (Tip your chin down with the wine in your mouth and see how much spit forms. If there’s a lot, it’s higher in acid!)

Tannins

Lots of red grapes have high tannins and can be aged for several years.  Sometimes whites have tannins, but rarely.  Tannins are chemical compounds that come from the seeds, skins and stems of grapes.  When you taste them in wine, they’re not so much a flavour as a feeling.  (That dry feeling you get along your gums, like when you drink a way over-steeped tea, is the feeling of tannins!) In the process of making red wine, the grape juice sits with these parts of the grape, allowing the tannins to enter the wine.  Some can come from oak contact as well.  Certain grapes are more tannic than others, depending on their composition, and certain wines will be more tannic if they’re left to sit with the skins, etc. for longer periods of time.  These tannins can be bitter and harsh in young wines, but they help them age well because with time, the tannins “soften,” and become more “well-rounded.”  This basically means that instead of the wine tasting sharp and pungent in your mouth, it will taste more smooth and balanced; higher tannin wines need age to taste better.

Alcohol Level and Residual Sugar

Red wines with higher alcohol content, closer to the 14% mark, will typically age better than lower alcohol reds.  Whites have lower alcohol in them, but some grapes have particular compounds and sugar levels that will allow for a decent amount of residual, that is, left-over sugar, once the fermentation process is done.  These whites, like Rieslings, for example, have a balance of sugar and acid that enables them to age well.

So now that you’ve determined you’ve got a wine you’re going to hold on to, here are some things to think about before you put it away and forget about it.

Screwcap vs. Synthetic Cork vs. Real Cork  

The method of capping wines is still a largely debated topic in the wine industry.  Real cork, vs. synthetic cork, vs. screwcap – there are a lot of opinions out there on which is best and why.  For more information on this topic, check out my article Real Cork vs. Synthetic Cork and Screwcaps. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only comment related to wine’s age-ability and storage.

Australia and New Zealand initiated the use of screw caps, and still use them on many of their wines.  Other countries have started following suit.  A screw cap does not indicate poor quality wine, it’s simply a method that some producers believe is the best way to seal their wines.  Wines with screw caps don’t need to be laying down for storage, but they can be. Screw caps haven’t been tested for super long term aging, but some can last a decade or more.

Wine professionals have recommended to me, on more than one occasion, that synthetic cork should not be left in contact with the wine for long periods of time; they say it can leave a plastic type taste in the wine, and can also leave other synthesized compounds in the wine, that they don’t want to be consuming several years down the line.  Stand those synthetic cork wines up for any length of storage.  Fair enough. These are also only guaranteed for a few years at best.

Wine with a real cork must be stored lying down.  Cork is a natural compound, and it dries out over time.  By lying the wine on its side, the wine stays touching the bottom of the cork, and the moisture helps to keep the cork damp enough that it shouldn’t dry out.  This is important, because if the cork dries out, it shrivels up and shrinks, letting too much unwanted air into the bottle.  Over the years, the overdose of oxygen will ruin the wine, leaving it “oxidized” and undesirable. Natural cork has proven the test of time and has lasted sometimes for hundreds of years.

Cellar Conditions

Have you ever been to a winery, or seen photos of their cellars?  What do you notice about them?  They’re usually cool, dark, and damp, and the wine is off to the side and out of the way so it doesn’t have to be moved.

Cellar conditions for ideal wine storage should be between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius, and shouldn’t change much.  Light shining onto the bottles for some time can alter the wine inside, whether it’s natural or artificial light.  Humidity will help keep the corks damp, so they stay plump and tightly sealed to the inside of the bottle’s neck.  The more you can leave the wine alone, without bumping it and moving it, the better its chances are of aging well.

When wine is resting well, it’s aging well, similar to you!  Just think of how well you would rest if someone kept changing the temperature on you, shining light on you, and bumping you around – exactly.  This is why I can’t sleep on an airplane. If you want your wine to be pleasant, give it a good rest!

Did you know that storing wine in a kitchen is actually one of the worst places in a home environment to keep it?  The temperature fluctuates the most in kitchens/bathrooms out of any of the rooms in your home.

How Long is Too Long?

There is a window of time that most wine professionals believe wine is at its best.  The window will vary slightly for each wine, but at a certain point, it will hit its peak, and begin to decline in quality again.  There is no exact way to know when this is, so it can feel like a risk when you’ve been aging a wine for a while, and want to make sure it’s at its best before popping that old cork ever so gently!

So many great wines become collector’s items, and people spend so much money on them, that they never want to drink them.  I once heard someone on a wine documentary say something to the effect of how many of the world’s greatest wines have essentially gone to waste, sitting in someone’s cellar for way too long, because people don’t understand how wine ages.  There’s a time and place for cellaring wine, but in the end, wine is meant to be drunk.

Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine is one of my favourite wine books.  She says, “contrary to popular opinion, only a small subgroup of wines benefit from extended bottle aging.  The great bulk of wine sold today, red as well as white and pink, is designed to be drunk within a year, or at most two, of bottling.”[2]

In her expert opinion, she goes on to list specific numbers of years that several particular types of wine should be aged for, of which I’ve only included a few popular choices.  Almost all whites retailing under the $20 range should only be bottle aged to a maximum of 2 years.  Heavier whites, like Chardonnay can sometimes last up to 6 years.  More expensive whites can age longer, like Chablis (up to 15 years), or some Rieslings (up to 20).[3]  This has to do with the structure of the particular grapes, and how they’re produced.

Surprisingly, the number doesn’t differ much for reds.  If they’re around that same $20 mark or under, the longest Jancis recommends you keep them is 3 years.  You can hang onto higher priced French wines in your cellar from 15 to 25 years, Italian Chianti or Spanish Rioja can present nicely up to 10 and 20 respectively as well.  Above the $20 price point, most Cabernet Sauvignons can be bottle aged for 7 – 17 years, Pinot Noirs, 4 – 10, Shiraz, 4 – 12, and Grenache, 3 – 8. [4]  Jancis has not lead me astray yet, and I trust these numbers; keep in mind there are always exceptions, and your cellar conditions need to be appropriate, especially if you’re considering aging your own wines in the bottles.

*Note that keeping value wines up to that 2-3 year mark is NOT going to enhance their flavour; think of that time frame like a best before date.

To determine how long the wine has been in the bottle, you’re going to have to do some math!  The year on the label is the year the grapes were harvested, not the year it was bottled necessarily, so if the label explains that it was aged in the winery for a certain number of years, you can add that time to the year on the label to get the bottling year.

If you’re looking to age a wine, remember to look for wines that are balanced in acidity, alcohol, residual sugar, or have some tannin to them.  You’ll want to spend a bit more on these ones, and watch out for synthetic cork. If you’ve got a lot of $20 to $30 wines sitting in your house, it may be time to have a party!  Let’s not let that wine go to waste.  Happy aging of the appropriate ones, and cheers to all the rest of them!

[1] Puckette, Madeline.  (2017, Feb.)  “How to Tell If A Wine Is Age-Worthy.”  Retrieved from https://winefolly.com/tutorial/how-to-tell-if-a-wine-is-age-worthy/

[2] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

[3] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

[4] Robinson, Jancis.  The Oxford Companion to Wine.  2015.  Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

Real Cork vs. Synthetic Cork and Screwcaps

Real Cork

Cork is a natural substance that has been used for thousands of years by multiple ancient civilizations.  We now associate it mostly with wine stoppers, but I didn’t know how that usage came to be until I did some research.

“The most significant development occurred in the 1600s, when Dom Perignon, developed his methode champenoise.  The wooden stoppers used to store still wines had considerable disadvantages when applied to sparkling wine.  Dom Perignon successfully adopted cork stoppers and soon cork became essential for wine bottling.”[1]

Way to go, Dom!

Natural cork has its benefits.  We know that it has good results with long term aging.  It allows a very small amount of oxygen to slowly enter the bottle over the course of several years, helping harsher wines, with lots of tannins, to soften and become more easily palatable and interesting.  Too much oxygen will ruin a wine, and quick.  Think of it like The Three Bears scenario:  too much is bad, but too little is bad – it has to be just right.  It’s also a somewhat renewable natural resource.  “Cork continues to re-grow after the bark has been harvested.  However, it needs time, so the cork bark is only harvested once, every 9 years or so.”[2]

People also seem to love wine with real cork in it.  It feels more authentic and traditional, and hints at better quality.

I found results to a study done at Oxford University that supports this argument.  They found that wine tasted better to the participants if it had a cork, because they believed and expected it to be better, as opposed to a screwcap.  The study tested 140 people that tried two similar wines back to back, one with a cork, and one with a screwcap.  They then sampled the same wines again, without realizing it, except the tops were switched.  Each time, they were asked which one tasted better.  113 of those people chose the wine with the cork, each time, even though the wines had been switched on the second round.[3]

The Professor who performed the study explained that “our senses are intrinsically linked – what we hear, see and feel has a huge effect on what we taste.”[4]  This just goes to show that no matter the truth behind the wine closure, many people want a cork in their wine, because it enhances the experience.

I have to admit, upon first reaction, I like a real cork too, especially on an old bottle, when there’s a bit of fungus growing on top.  It reminds me that the bottle has a history, and a story, and it feels real.  I have to correct my reaction that seeing a synthetic or screwcap top on the bottle doesn’t imply the quality is less.  Real cork just plays into the fanciness, and the classy feeling that uncorking a wine gives.  It’s part of a ritual, if you will, when one wants to really enjoy a wine.

So if cork works, and people love it, why would anyone not use cork?

That’s where TCA steps in.  Dun dun dun…play the scary music.

TCA stands for Trichloroanisole, and basically, it’s a compound that forms in natural cork, and ends up getting transferred into wine, through that cork.  Terms such as “cork taint,” or a wine being “corked,” are referring to TCA.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity of smelling a wine that’s been affected with cork taint, it’s really bad!  The smell reminds me of an old church garage sale, or my grandmother’s basement storage room, that’s had a little bit of water in there over the years, hasn’t been dusted or cleaned out, and is probably growing mould.  As you can guess, it has a similar, unpleasant taste, too.

TCA’s not going to kill you, and as far as we know, it wouldn’t even make you sick – if you could still stomach the wine.  What’s likely to make you sick, however, is how your beautiful, expensive bottle of wine you’ve been anticipating is now effectively ruined.

You can find countless different statistics all over the internet on the percentages of wines that have been ruined by cork taint.  There was a big surge of it in the 1990s, that got people looking for other methods to close their wines.  On one of the wine tours we attended, the guide explained that they had switched to screw caps during that time, because they were finding that up to 10% of their wines were tainted.  Other statistics claim it was as low as 1-2%, and I’ve heard up to 20%.  There really isn’t an extremely accurate way of tracking this, and it differs from region to region.  A certain batch of cork could have been tainted, or it could have been a poor winery practice that caused the taint in the wine.

The numbers have significantly dropped now, as the cork industry got on top of the issue.  “Quality procedures have been overhauled, starting in the cork forests” with procedures to prevent the mould from getting into the cork itself.  The storage has been improved with “new factories close to the forests…the bark is stored only on concrete or stainless steel, never touching bare earth.”  The cork is also “rejected if [it shows] the slightest hint of a greenish stain,” and the bark is turned into corks by hand, “ensuring that the corks are taken from the best part of the bark.”  Nothing is wasted, and all the unused material is recycled.[5]  From the sites I referenced in this article, it seems to be that the percentages of cork taint have dropped significantly; the wine buyer at my favourite liquor store says that they hardly ever have returns anymore for this issue, and in all of the wines I’ve bought from them, and had in their tasting room, I’ve only ever seen one corked one.

Synthetic Cork

An alternative to real cork, is synthetic cork.  With this, there is no risk of TCA.  Synthetic cork can also be way more affordable for producers who are making inexpensive wines, meant for immediate consumption.  We don’t see super cheap wines in Canada very often, but if you’ve travelled Europe, you know that you can get some wines for less than $5.  Robert Joseph of Decanter makes an excellent point for why these types of producers may choose synthetic cork.  “When you are earning €3 a bottle, it makes no sense to spend a sixth of that sum on a top-quality cork.”[6]

It may be more consistent, and cheaper than real cork, but it’s also plastic, and not natural.  Jeff Leve explains that “the problems with synthetic corks is the lack of a perfect seal.  In turn that allows more unwanted air into the bottle, causing the wine to oxidize.  Worse, many of the synthetic corks have been known to impart a slight rubber or chemical smell, damaging the wine.” [7]  I’ve heard several of my wine industry friends complain of this happening; they say that if they’ve aged a wine on its side, and the synthetic cork is touching the wine, it can taste like plastic, so they always store their synthetically corked wines upright.  As for the lack of perfect seal, Jeff explains that some wine makers prefer this, if it can age their wines more quickly, to be consumed sooner.  He says there are also many companies now that are coming out with synthetic cork that lets in a more controlled amount of oxygen.[8]  There has also not been proof of how well it holds up for long term aging.

Screwcaps

The good old screwcap is another manufactured wine closure that is more cost effective, and less environmentally friendly, than real cork.  It also eliminates the risk for TCA, or plastic tasting wine; however, as you read above in the Oxford study, it’s associated with cheap wine.  Australia has put significant research into screwcap closures, as an article in the Sydney Morning Herald explains.

“The winemakers worked with the Australian Wine Research Institute, which over a 24 month period conducted trials that tested nine different closure methods (including natural cork, synthetic cork, technical cork and screwcaps.  After nine months under screwcap, each bottle of the same wine tasted the same… but the same wine under eight different cork closures all varied in taste.”[9]

I like some good research to back any fact, and I am impressed that there has been significant testing done on this issue.  Taylors Wines was the first winery to bottle every wine they make with a screwcap closure, in 2004, even though they risked what people’s opinions of the quality would be.  Now, 98% to 99% of Australian wines are bottled under screwcaps.[10]

Unfortunately, using a screwcap doesn’t guarantee a perfect seal.  There are some screwcaps that have been designed to allow slow amounts of oxygen into the wine, so that it can get some aging benefits, but it’s very possible that when the cap is getting attached to the bottle, it might not seal correctly.    I’ve had this happen to me before, (once) and had to send wine back to a winery because of it.  A wine expert taught me a good way to test this; when you’re buying a screwcap bottle, gently try and twist the closure under the lid, to see if it will rotate around the neck.  If it’s stuck to the neck and doesn’t rotate, you’re good.  If it does rotate, the bottle has not been sealed properly, and you could find that it’s been oxidized.

New Zealand launched their initiative to use screwcaps on even their top quality wines in 2001.  The initiative aims to “encourage and facilitate the use of screwcap wine seals by New Zealand wineries,”[11] and basically also to research them and make them super awesome! Excellent! You go, New Zealand! Maybe they’ll find a solution to ensure even more bottles are sealed tightly.  They do believe that screwcaps can be guaranteed to age well for considerable time, which is another plus for them; I’ve heard up to 10 years or more.  The founders of the initiative believe that cork taint is a considerable problem, and should no longer be tolerated, and seeks to find new and better ways.

It seems to me that our opinions of quality, based on a judgement we make on seeing the wine’s closure, may be preventing us from enjoying actual quality in some wines.

Didn’t anyone tell us not to judge a book by its cover?  In my opinion, those who judge all wines by their screwcap ‘cover,’ are missing out on some of the best wine ‘stories’ out there.  For example, I continue to buy Australian wine, even though it’s closed with a screwcap, because one of my favourite wines of all time is Penfolds – screwcap tops, amazing quality.

Let’s not be so hasty in our judgements anymore, wine drinkers!  Have you had a poor quality wine with a screwcap?  Yeah.  Have you had a poor quality wine with a synthetic cork?  Yes.  How about with real, natural cork in it?  Uh huh – me too.  I’ve also had great bottles with all three closures.  There’s so much more to what’s in the bottle, than what’s on top of the bottle.

There are no guarantees that every single bottle coming out of production is going to be perfect when it’s opened, no matter the type of seal.  There is always that small risk that it’s going to be corked, or oxidized.  That’s why in a restaurant, when you order a bottle, they allow you to taste it before it’s served; you’re checking that the quality is acceptable.  Luckily, most wine stores and producers understand that a percentage of damaged wine is part of the process, and I’ve never had anyone refuse to refund or replace my corked or oxidized bottles.

In the end, wine producers need to weigh their options and determine what’s going to suit them best.  As a buyer, knowledge is power.  It’s good to be aware of the pros and cons of each wine closure, and to eliminate misconceptions as much as possible.  When you’re purchasing a wine, and you’re looking at the closure, think about what that wine’s purpose is going to be for you.  Keep an open mind.  Who knows, maybe in a few decades, the sound of a screwcap seal breaking will have a friendlier association… we can hope!

Happy wine-ing!

Special thanks to Chad for asking me to write this article, which required the most research I’ve done since being in University… I guess we do learn to cite things for an applicable life reason. 😉

[1] Unknown.  “History of Cork Usage.”  http://www.corkqc.com/pages/history-of-cork-usage.

[2] Leve, Jeff.  “Wine Corks Everything You Need to Know About Wine Corks.”  https://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/wine-education-articles/wine-corks-everything-need-know-wine-corks/.

[3] Yorke, Harry.  “The Great Wine Debate; Corks really are better than screw-tops, Oxford study finds.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/27/great-wine-debate-corks-really-better-screw-tops-oxford-study/.  (September, 2017).

[4] Yorke, Harry.  “The Great Wine Debate; Corks really are better than screw-tops, Oxford study finds.”

[5] Bird, David.  “How the Cork Industry is Fighting Back.”  https://www.decanter.com/features/which-cork-is-best-246798/

[6] Joseph, Robert.  “Which Cork Is Best?”  https://www.decanter.com/features/which-cork-is-best-246798/ (January, 2009).

[7] Leve, Jeff.  “Wine Corks Everything You Need to Know About Wine Corks.” https://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/wine-education-articles/wine-corks-everything-need-know-wine-corks/.

[8] Leve, Jeff.  “Wine Corks Everything You Need to Know About Wine Corks.”

[9] Bliszczyk, Aleksandra.  “Australia’s wine screwcap revolution.” https://www.smh.com/au/business/australias-wine-screwcap-revolution-20170628-gx0e3l.html (June, 2017)

[10] Bliszczyk, Aleksandra.  “Australia’s wine screwcap revolution.”

[11] www.screwcap.co.nz