Nothing gets a wine geek’s pulse racing like the promise of tasting a famous old wine. While it is definitely not the case that old wine is always good, it is usually very, very interesting. The obvious thing about old wine that makes it so special is the rarity factor. Wine is a spoilable asset and as the bottles are drunk over time, those that remain become more sought after and often more valuable. In turn, this means that mere mortals like us rarely get much of an opportunity to taste them - especially those from the best years and the most famous producers.
Ageing Wine and Ancient History
Nowadays, ageing wine seems like a natural thing to do with the usual suspects - top Bordeaux, Burgundy, Port and other fine wines. However, the history of ageing wine is an interesting one that has something of a hole in the middle of it. Aside from biblical references to the maturation of wine, the story really begins with the Romans. They were renowned for maturing the finest wines for many years, particularly the sweet wines from prestigious vineyards like Falernian (also spelt Falernum). It was a real sign of social status to be able to dip into an amphora of wine that had been maturing for a couple of decades, to the extent that people would often ‘smoke’ young wine in an effort to replicate the flavours that maturity brought.
Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the ageing of wine fell out of public consciousness and it was many hundreds of years before the idea seemed to catch on again. The vast majority of wine that was produced in Medieval times was thin and acidic, so it was only in certain climates that sweet wines would emerge from time to time that would reward maturation. The everyday stuff was invariably consumed within months of the harvest, or it would become oxidised and sour.
Reviving Old Age
So what changed? Two innovations came along at around the same time - the cork and bottle. After this airtight vessel emerged in the 17th century, wines that were shipped to the U.K. (namely Claret and Port) and put into bottle displayed wonderful complexity after time in the cellar. Mature wine had been rediscovered and the understanding that it came to improve over time would transform the wine trade. The British taste for mature wine has never left us and the ‘British Palate’ has often been a euphemism for the idea that we drink wine when it is way past its best!
So What Happens as Wine Ages?
As red wines age they tend to lose colour (from their rich purple or deep red state in youth) and move along the spectrum from purple towards brown/brick red. The aromas in the wine also change from vibrant primary fruit and floral characters, towards more cooked and dried fruit alongside earthy, meaty and gamey scents. What was once new oak may relax into a smokey character and this melange of aromas will synchronise into a complex bouquet that has far more depth and character than the wine did in its earlier state. These flavours are the more developed, tertiary elements that constitute much of the complexity we get so excited about.
The colour of white wine as it ages works differently to red wines. Rather than getting lighter as the pigmented tannins of reds bind, fall and become sediment, white wines get darker (often moving from yellow to brown) by virtue of the oxidation of their phenols. As the phenols oxidise, they take on pigment and the wine’s perceivable colour darkens. As with reds, this ageing process enhances the complexity of the wine’s bouquet and flavour.
Mark Andrew has worked in the fine wine industry for the past 5 years and has a particular interest in French wine. When he’s not online or at a tasting he enjoys football and wandering the vineyards of his beloved Burgundy.