What’s so good about aged wine, anyway?
Aged wine has an aura about it. I recently saw someone write how they were disappointed in a 12-year old wine they tried because it didn’t have that ‘old’ taste they were expecting. Gutted.
So what is so good about old wine? What do we expect from it, and why do we think it’s necessarily better than young wine?
Let’s start with what happens to wine as it ages, and go from there.
You may have heard people talking about primary, secondary and tertiary aromas in wine. You may not have, but let’s have a quick crash course in them anyway. Good to know the objective stuff before we get into the truly subjective, and I reckon any little tidbit of understanding helps.
These are directly grape-derived aromas. The plums in your shiraz, the blackcurrants in your cabernet, and the lemons in your riesling. Basically what you’d smell if free-run grape juice was fermented in an inert vessel (eg. stainless steel tank), and tasted very soon after.
These are winemaking-derived aromas. The vanilla and coconut from oak, the banana and bubblegum from carbonic maceration, or the brioche and butter derived from malolactic fermentation and/or time on lees, to name a few. Such winemaking techniques will also change some of the primary fruit aromas too. These are the aromas that only exist outside of a simple alcoholic fermentation.
These are the aromas that occur as wine slowly oxidises over time - i.e. ages. aroma molecules change, interact, and form new aroma molecules. Basically, wine character changes over time, in case you hadn’t noticed.
So when we’re talking about aged wine, we’re focussing on the tertiary aromas - its ‘bouquet’, if you’re so inclined. Think about kerosene smells in aged riesling, mushroom in venerable pinot noir, or leather in old shiraz.
The age-old question
So do you want kerosene, mushrooms and leather? Here’s where we leave science and enter the world of opinion. There’s such prestige associated with old bottles that people think old wine is inherently better, while I’ve had red wine on release that is immensely satisfying, only to see it ruined by the ravages of careful, temperature-controlled cellaring (damn you, patience!). You’ve also got to factor in that you’re a unique snowflake, and the ‘kero’ that you smell in a riesling will smell like ‘delicate daisies’ to one of those other snowflakes flitting about.
So let’s nail it down: it’s totally subjective. Do you like fresh young riesling with searing acid, and vibrant apple and lemon-lime zest aromas? Or do you crave something softer, rounder, richer, more kero and lemon pith. Do you hanker for a spritely, punch-in-the-face plum-and-berry Barossa shiraz, or do you yearn for mellow decades-old Hermitage that smells of rich mahogany and Aquila shoes? Yeah, you might get more complexity with a bit of age, but you might not. And that’s why wine comes in cases. Drink one when you first buy the case. If you love it, drink some more. Leave a few for a few months, or a year, and try it again. Like it more? Cool, drink more! Or let it ride, and enjoy the journey. Make notes if you’ve got a bad memory.
Welcome to the wonderful world of wine, where everyone has a different opinion, everyone likes something different, and every bottle is different. Wine is a movie, not a photo, and you’re the director. So buy some wine you think you’ll like, watch it evolve. Find out you like something else more. Share the journey with friends. Make some food, try your wine with different things.
I’m afraid to say, this is one of those cases where you learn best by doing. But you were probably hoping I’d say that. Now go buy some wine.