One of the most common misconceptions surrounding wine is that all wine improves with age. In fact, a staggering 99% of wine produced every year is not actually intended for aging, and instead, should be enjoyed while it is still young.
Confusingly, however, there’s no definitive formula for calculating exactly when a wine should be drunk or which wines should and should not be aged. Even if we set aside the thousands of variables that can influence the end quality of a bottle of wine, whether or not a wine is any good is completely subjective and decided by the person who is drinking it. It’s all a matter of taste and preference at the end of the day.
Nevertheless, the lifespan of all wine is finite, and each and every wine will eventually reach the point of "drying out." The fruit character and freshness of the wine disappear completely, and at this point, the bottle is not longer suitable for sale. Luckily, there are a few principles and guidelines we can follow to help us decide when we should open a bottle of wine, whether we should store a bottle we have just bought or whether a wine we have been storing and just opened is good to drink.
Analyze the Fruit Character of the Wine
The fruit character a wine displays corresponds to the grape variety from which it was made. Each variety has a range of fruit characters that it can possibly display. Along with levels of acidity, sugar and tannin, we can vaguely describe what each variety should display, though to accurately predict, we must also know more information about the vintage.
Take Chardonnay for example. In cool - moderate climates, Chardonnay will express citric fruit notes (lemon, green apple) and have medium-high acidity. When planted in cool regions, the variety and resulting wine style are referred to as a "cool-climate Chardonnay." Yet in warm - hot climates, the fruit character will be of a much more tropical nature, (pineapple, passionfruit) and the wine will have medium-low acidity. In this case, Chardonnay is referred to as a "warm-climate Chardonnay."
The Evolution of Fruit Character in Wine
The fruit character of a wine evolves with age after bottling. In white wines, fresh, vibrant fruit characters change to a more dried-fruit nature, often picking up some toasted and honey notes along the way.
The two scenarios outlined above describe the ideal evolution of two types of wine. Yet, as we initially established, not all wines are meant for aging, so what happens to the other 99% of wine produced every year? Before answering this question we should look at what it is that helps a wine age.
What Helps a Wine Age?
The best examples of aged wines are those that maintain their identity, that is to say the fruit character, while at the same time taking on other interesting notes of evolution.
Broadly speaking, in white wines, a high acidity is required to maintain freshness, and in turn, fruit character. In reds, we are looking for a good initial balance of acidity and high tannins, which combine to provide the structure that allows a wine to be aged for multiple decades.
This is, however, a very basic way of looking at things, and there are many other factors that should be considered when judging a wine’s suitability for aging.
Perhaps the easiest way of judging a wine is by considering price. Generally, until you start reaching the $25 - $30 mark, chances are the wine you’re buying is not meant to be aged. Instead, the wine has been produced for consumption while it is still young and rich in fresh fruit character.
Drying Out: Wines Thats Are Not Meant for Aging
When wines that were produced to be consumed young are aged for too long (exact time period varies depending on the wine, but think 2 - 3 years for whites and a little longer for reds), they begin to dry out.
This term does not refer to the level of sweetness of a wine, you may have heard people talk about dry or off-dry wines before, instead it refers to a loss of intensity of fruit character, acidity and (in the case of reds) tannins in the wine. You can learn more about this in our article, "What Does Dry Mean: A Beginners Guide to Wine Tasting Lingo.."
A wine which has dried out can also be identified first by a slight change in color. As we are talking about young wines here, we would expect vibrant colors - green highlights in white wines and ruby reds in red wines. Instead, white wines start to become darker, more yellow and intense, while reds actually lose color, taking on a brown or orange hue. The colors of a dried out wine are similar to that of some oxidized wines.
If any doubts remain when tasting the wine, the easiest way to determine if the wine has completely dried out is by how long flavors stay in the mouth for. A wine which has dried out will not only have lost intensity and variety of flavors, what flavor is left will disappear rapidly, resulting in a short finish. One second the flavor is there, the next it has completely disappeared.
What Can Be Done If a Wine Has Dried Out
Unfortunately, when you come across a wine which has dried out, there is nothing you can do to improve it. The wine has simply passed its peak and is not worth drinking.
Instead, one should look to preventing experiencing this, and that is a simple case of knowing what to buy. As previously stated, when spending less than $25 - $30 on a bottle of wine, it’s almost certain that this wine was produced to be consumed while still young. Generally speaking, it is not advisable to buy whites that are more than 2 to 3 years old or reds that are more 5 years old. (Learn more in "Put Down the Sweet Red: How to Drink Fine Wine."
When looking to spend a little bit more on a bottle of wine or if you are thinking of buying a bottle to age, one should carefully research the vintage and conditions of the particular sub-region where grapes for the wine were grown. You may find our article, "How to Choose Wine for Your Cellar," can help with this.
There are a number of online resources that can make these decisions easier, and while one can never be 100% certain that what you have bought will age well, a little bit of research can go a long way to reducing the risk of disappointment years down the line. Tasting a wine which has dried out, or is "over the hill," is a completely underwhelming and unsatisfying experience - infinitely more so when you have waited 10 years to try the wine in question.