THE PHRASE “AGING like fine wine” has become so common in our vernacular that for most of us, it’s lost its meaning. Sure, in principle, we all know that wine gets better as it ages. Even pop stars like Lizzo sing the praises of older vintage chardonnay, but in a country where 90 percent of all wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, is anyone actually still aging wine? The obvious answer is, well, I am, but it’s my hope that just a few paragraphs from now, you’ll count yourself among those who have their own burgeoning wine cellar (or closet!).
Old wine is one of the world’s greatest pleasures. Whether it’s the famously long-lived wines of Bordeaux or a haunting bottle of decades-old riesling, there is something truly transcendent about consuming a wine that has reached peak maturity. There are, of course, the flavors and aroma of the wine, which will have changed dramatically from its younger self. But with aged wine, you’re in the unique position of tasting a historic artifact, a tangible link to a finite point in time.
I drink a lot of wine, and most of it is forgotten (though not, you know, because of the wine itself). The simple truth is that all merlots taste like, well, merlot, and eventually, they begin to run together in my memory. But the wines that live forever in my mind, the bottles I share stories about the most, are those that have weathered the course of time in ways that even our own bodies sometimes cannot.
There was, for example, the bottle of 1976 Mosel riesling that I had with friends, each of us passing the bottle from one to the next, pouring the golden drops of decades into our glasses. Time had polished its citrus vivacity, a cacophony of lime, lemon and grapefruit, and fused it into the essence of 43 years’ worth of sunny afternoons, as if each year of the bottle’s life had donated its most perfect ray of sun to our glasses. To drink something older than yourself is an examination of scale. Just as one can feel so small at the edge of the ocean, so too can a moment seem so fleeting at the taste of a decade.
But what makes a wine worth aging? How does simple grape juice become bottled starlight? The honest truth is that you can never 100 percent predict what a wine will taste like 20 years into the future, but there are three key elements that will, at the very least, guide you to finding a wine that stands a good chance of crossing the finish line.
The first of these is tannin, the protein found in grape skins and seeds that, similar to walnuts and oversteeped tea, produces the characteristically bitter flavor found in most red wine. Over the years, these bitter tannins will soften, becoming less pronounced, much in the same way that hard leather becomes softer with age and use, with bitterness giving way to waves of aroma.
The second and likely most important characteristic is acid. The same bracing acid that makes us pucker from lemonade or squint from a handful of Warheads candy is the key to some of the world’s most long-lived wines. Champagne and riesling, each with backbones of iron-like acidity, can be bracing when young but soften and become plush with age.
The final indicator is sweetness. Many of the world’s oldest wines are dessert wines, with sweetness levels reaching far above anything we might find in a can of soda. These wines, such as port, Madeira, Sauternes or ice wine, from quality producers and if stored correctly, can live for over 100 years. None of these factors alone can ensure that a wine will last more than a few years past its vintage date (please don’t age your bottles of Barefoot Moscato), but working in concert, they can be as close to a time machine as our natural world allows.
Let’s say you did have the perfect wine for aging, say a bottle of red Bordeaux from a standout vintage, say 2010. It may not reach maturity for 25 years. What are you supposed to do with it in the meantime? The where and how of wine storage can play an even greater role in aging a wine than what’s actually in the bottle. It doesn’t matter how nice that bottle of Bordeaux is if you leave it sitting in the windowsill all summer long or in a cabinet above your stove. The ideal place for storing wine will have four things: cool and stable temperatures, little direct light and little to no movement. The most obvious place in a home is a cellar, so common in Medieval Europe, with their cool, dark and dank interiors. Nowadays, collectors spend tens of thousands of dollars to build ornate wine-tasting cellars, and magazines now exist just to show off these juice-laden man caves.
So what are those of us without a cellar to do? Most of my approximately 300-bottle collection lives in what used to be my linen closet and are held by $20 wine racks from Ikea. It’s an imperfect solution, but it gets the job done. Keeping my house at 50 degrees year-round is impossible, but it is the most interior room in my home, with the least amount of temperature fluctuations and the least amount of light exposure. It likely won’t keep my Sauternes for 100 years, but it has allowed me to grow my collection and to experiment with short-term aging of wine.
Not ready to devote an entire closet to your hobby? Or maybe you have a spouse who isn’t ready to give up a closet? No worries at all. Ask your local wine shop for a used wine box, and stick it in the bottom of your least-used closet. Rest your bottles either on their side or upside down (the strength of your box will determine this), and you’ll be good to go, for the short term, at least.
Once you’ve got your cellar nee closet ready to go, what will you fill it with? The choice is up to you, but here are some picks for wines that are sure to go the distance when it comes to aging potential.
Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $100
Cabernet sauvignon’s naturally high tannin and acidity are what make it an ideal wine for storing away for a few years. Add in a world-renowned winemaker like Cathy Corison, and you’ve got a wine that stands toe to toe with giants of Bordeaux. The grape’s natural fruitiness (think cassis, plum and blackberry) will slowly give way to violets and rose hips, turning softer and more savory as it ages. Drink now through 2030.
Selbach-Oster Graacher Domprobst Riesling Feinherb, $35
Don’t let the German on the label scare you away—this is a wine that will reward the patient. Here the sweetness and acidity of riesling work in concert to sustain a wine that is, at first sip, impossibly energetic, like a bolt of lightning trapped in glacial ice. Given time, however, this wine will mellow and broaden. Lime peel and stony minerality will transition to notes of black tea and candied grapefruit. Drink from 2022-2032.
Chateau Roumieu–Lacoste Sauternes, $30
Sure. Everyone knows Bordeaux for its famous red wines, but the area’s real treasures are the tiny bottles of golden dessert wine produced in the area called Sauternes. These unctuously sweet wines are made from grapes that have been covered in a fungus before being pressed into wine. And while yes, that does sound weird, there is a reason that this fungus was given the name “the noble rot.” The resulting wines are unlike anything else in the world, teeming with neon accented notes of pineapple and papaya, ginger and quince. The region’s top wines have been known to last more than 100 years in proper storage conditions, though I can’t imagine having the self-control required not to drink an entire bottle myself. Drink now through 2045.
Pierre Peters Les Chétillons Champagne, $130
Champagne is the hardest wine to age, as a result of its sensitivity to changes in temperature and light. Those that do manage to hang onto a bottle long enough will be rewarded with a wine that borders on the ethereal. The wine’s acidity, its carbonation and the extended time the wine spends in contact with the spent yeasts that ferment it are all inextricably linked to the length of life of a bottle of Champagne. Drink now through 2030.