FAQ’s from the Tasting Room: “What makes a wine age-worthy vs. meant to be drunk right away?”

wine cellar

Hi everyone!  Most of you know me from meeting me at the tasting room.  I hope that I’ve done a good job of guiding you through your tastings and imparting some of the wine knowledge I’ve picked up through my experience and studies.  Because our interactions in the tasting room are sometimes rushed, I’ve decided to start contributing to our company blog with a topic that I hope you’ll find interesting and/or helpful: FAQ’s from the Tasting Room. Each post, I’ll choose a topic that I get frequently asked about by tasting room guests and explain it in further detail.  You wanna know, and I wanna answer!  So let’s get this started!

My debut topic…

“What makes a wine age-worthy vs. meant to be drunk right away?”

Well, the answer to this question depends on quite a few factors: the quality of the vintage (or year the grapes were harvested), the production practices, vineyard practices, the region where the grapes were grown and of course the grape itself. For simplicity purposes, let’s focus on which grape qualities help make a wine age-worthy. In no certain order they are: alcohol, sugar, tannin and acid. To age well, a wine must not only possess one or more of these factors, it must also be balanced (meaning not one of these elements stands out against the others). That $5 bottle of sweet red wine on the supermarket shelf just won’t cut it.

Alcohol and sugar both serve as preservatives that can help a wine last longer. The general rule is: the higher the alcohol and sweetness, the longer the wine will age.  Or in other words, the “bigger” or “fuller” the wine, the longer you can cellar it.  Wines that have been fortified with a neutral grape spirit, such as Port (which also has high sugar levels on its side), can age for many years when made well – 10 or even 20 years!  Similarly, high quality dessert wines like French Sauternes with ample residual sugar can be cellared for decades.

In red wines, high concentrations of tannins and flavor compounds are the keys to longevity.  Over time a wine with strong tannins (mouth drying, bitter compounds) will soften and become smoother. The fruit flavors will also dissipate and give way to more nuanced flavors that become earthier (think mushroom and truffle). The tannins and flavor compounds eventually precipitate out of the wine forming sediment, which is why older wines are often decanted. Examples of wines with high concentrations of these compounds are Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. They, too, can often age for 10-20 years plus!

Acid is another great preservative in wine and is the key for aging white wines and certain reds like Pinot Noir. As the years pass, the acids and alcohol in the wine interact to form chemical compounds that create new aromas. This process adds more complexity to the wine over time. While the acidity levels do not change, the perception of acidity becomes less pronounced. An example of a white wine that might benefit from bottle age is high acid, premium quality Riesling, which can typically age well for 5-10 years.

Like I always say in the tasting room, wine preference is pretty subjective. All of Lieb’s Reserve red wines will age well for a number of years, but you may enjoy them more upon release if you prefer crisp, clean, bright and fruit driven wines.  If your preference is softer wines with a little more spice or earthiness, then age away.  Our whites, on the other hand, are purposely made to be drunk young and are released at optimal drinking time.   My rule of thumb (when I can afford it) is to buy two bottles and see if I can tell the difference after a few years of cellar time. Finally, a good stat to keep in mind is that only 10% of wines produced improve after one year of aging. That means 90% of wines will never be “too young.”  So when in doubt, stop thinking about it, pop that cork (or screwcap) and enjoy!

Finally, if you’re looking for a quick reference tool on specific varieties, I find this one by Wine Folly to be particularly helpful and spot on: http://winefolly.com/tutorial/cellar-wine-guide/

Til next time!

Anthony Mattis

Certified Sommelier & Tasting Room Captain