I love the expression ‘ages like fine wine.’ It’s an expression that becomes even more popular among older people, and it’s the sort of thing that we like to tell ourselves when we’re feeling down about our years. We all want to be the fine wines that age well, and are in fact even better after several decades than they were when they were first new. I would say that people do often age like wine. However, does wine always age like wine?
The idea that older wine is always better than newer wine is so pervasive that it’s the only thing that most people ‘know’ about wine, and the expression is more popular than the beverage that supposedly inspired it. I’m here to tell you that a good ninety percent of the wine that is created should have been consumed in the same year that it was introduced. Not all wines get better with age. There are four factors that go into wine aging: the residual sugar, the acidity, the tannin structure, and the alcohol content.
One of the curiosities of this phenomenon is not only the fact that fine wine gets better with age, but fine wine often doesn’t even taste very good when it is new. As a rule, if you’re dealing with a wine that tastes delicious when it is twelve years old, it isn’t going to taste very good in the first few years after its initial release. Some people actually get the wrong idea about fine wine for that reason. They try it when it is too new to be good, and they come to the conclusion that the cheap stuff is better. The cheap stuff is just more widely available in every way.
For a wine to age well, it’s going to need to have a high acid content. You know how soft drinks tend to go flat after they’re left out for too long? Wines aren’t that much different in that regard. They get flat after their acid content weakens. A wine that didn’t have that much acid to begin with is going to be as flat as Kansas after only a few years have gone by. A wine that is as acidic as can be is going to have plenty of acid to burn with time.
Bear in mind that this is another reason why fine wines aren’t going to be as tasty when they are first introduced. Wines with a high acid content are going to have a much sharper flavor for that reason, and not everyone is going to like that taste very much. After a decade goes by and the acid content starts to weaken a little, the acid level is going to be just right when it comes to the taste of the wine. You end up with a wine that is vastly better than a new wine with a comparable acid content.
Here’s a question I like to ask a lot of wine enthusiasts to see just how serious they are: do sweet wines age better than dry wines? I almost guarantee that you that a lot of people are going to say ‘dry wines.’ Lots of people like to age their dry wines, and it’s almost considered a status symbol if you can manage to do it. However, one of the reasons for this in the first place lies in the fact that it is a lot harder to age dry wines than it is to age the sweet wines.
The delicious wines that you see last for decades are often sweet wines like port or fortified wine. You’ll see sweet wines like Sauternes, sherry, and riesling aging well right alongside these sweet wines. Really, this is one of the reasons why the oldest wines are also the tastiest in many cases. The tastier ones are just the ones that last longer!
Wine enthusiasts will tend to debate a lot about white wine versus red wine. Really, it’s one of the questions that you ask your fellow wine geeks. I don’t know if it’s the ‘Kirk versus Picard’ of wine, but it’s up there. Anyway, I can tell you that red wine does tend to age better than white wine as well. Even the cheapest red wine will still be good for months after the cheapest white wine has turned into flat sludge. It’s even more pronounced when it comes to the finer and more expensive wine.
So yes: there’s a reason why people will be drinking some wines for decades, and some of them will barely make it to the end of the year without tasting flat and defeated. However, at its core, I don’t really think that wine does age well in an absolute sense. Wines that age well are just resistant to wear and tear because they have a lot to burn, so to speak.
Also, while some wines get better with age, they don’t absolutely get better with age. A wine that is better at age twelve than it was at age one isn’t going to be better at age fifty necessarily. Wine also definitely doesn’t last forever, and if it really got better with age, than it would. The number of wines that make it to the end of a century are rare. Wine is sadly as mortal as the rest of us, at least for now. Maybe we will both ‘age like wine’ in the future.