Most people will have the perception that older wines are somehow better than their younger counterparts. But of course it is never that simple – wines follow a predictable progression of development as time passes, but whether or not you enjoy the result will always depend on your personal tastes.
If you are planning on starting a wine collection for investment purposes, this may not bother you. But if you want to cultivate a wine cellar for personal enjoyment than it is important to have a good idea of your tastes and preferences first, before deciding if long-term cellaring is right for you.
The Ageing Process
It is useful to think of the ageing process of a wine in terms of fruit character. When young, wines will express much more fruit-forward profile. In red wines this may manifest itself through the aromas of cherries, plums, and prunes, whereas in whites you may expect lemons, peaches and passionfruit. These will also vary depending on the varietal/s that the wine is made from.
As time passes it is useful to think of the fruit “dropping” out of the wine. Secondary and tertiary characters, basically anything that is not associated with fruit, will become more evident. In red wines this may include aromas of leather, mushroom and forest floor, and white wines may display notes of old honey, brioche and oak.
There are important changes to colour as well – in reds, it is the tannin that gives the wine it’s colour, but as time passes these small particles join up and become heavy enough to be pulled down by gravity. Like the fruit characters, we say the tannin as “dropped” out of the wine, and the wine will appear paler and closer to orange than red. Here is an example of an aged red wine – Review #29 – Tahbilk 1860 Vines Shiraz 2000.
Conversely, white wines contain no tannin, and their colour change is due to a very slow process of oxidation. Imagine a cut apple gradually turning from white to brown – this is what happens to a white wine’s colour as it ages. Where red wines become paler with age, white wines gain depth. Here is an example of an aged white wine – Review #26 – Evans Family Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2002
The Effect Of Closures
The speed of ageing will depend on the cellaring environment, but all things being equal the main thing to take into account is the type of closure that wine is sealed under. Natural cork is the traditional choice, being porous enough to allow oxygen to slowly interact with the wine. However there is always the risk of cork taint contaminating the wine, and this should be considered seriously.
You may also find wines using cork alternatives such as Diam closures, which are pulverised, treated and reconstructed corks that claim to reduce the incidence of cork taint to near zero. In my experience these have been very effective and the corks perform very well, rarely crumbling when using a corkscrew. However there are still not that many producers choosing to use Diam due to cost reasons.
Finally there is screwcap, which is sterile in both biological and idealistic terms. There is almost no chance of cork taint coming from a screwcap wine, but the romantic image of uncorking the wine is hard to shake, and many people still associate screwcap closures with cheaper wines. However it is a proven technology, and there are even efforts to introduce screwcaps that allow small amounts of oxygen to permeate through it into the wine, similar to natural cork, to simulate the traditional ageing process.
In the end, knowing where your tastes and preferences lie is the most important consideration for whether or not you should start a personal wine collection. If you just enjoy youthful, fruit-driven wines, then you may be content with the occasional bottle sealed under screwcap at your local wine shop. Otherwise, buying a developing wine under cork will satisfy the other end of the spectrum.
And don’t forget to buy by the case – it would be a shame to have bought just one bottle and discover it was corked years later.
PS – If you want to find out whether you lean towards young wines or if you’re the cellaring type, I offer Personal Wine Consultations to break down your tastes and preferences, delivered within 24 hours.
Read more: 5 Reasons To Have Wine On A Date