How Old?

One of the questions I’m asked about most frequently is for how long a wine can be aged. To be honest, for most of us, this is not a question keeping us awake at night as apparently 98% of the bottles of wine we buy, we drink within two weeks. If that seems way out of line with your usual buying/drinking window then you may not be surprised to know that around 95% of UK wine purchases are opened in a matter of a couple of hours.

But recently I’ve been lucky enough to taste wines from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, both red and white. So wine can age. Just not all wine. So how do you know whether you should squirrel the wine away or enjoy it right this minute? This is a tricky one to answer as there are so many variables, the most important one being whether you like old wines or not, and, despite Francis Bacon’s words of wisdom, ‘Age appears to be best in four things; old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.’, old wines just might not be your thing.

The key thing to know when buying an older bottle is that it will probably come from a premium winery, everyday wine is not made to keep, and will therefore carry a certain price tag; it will typically be red or sweet if it is white; it will usually be from a good vintage and certainly should have been stored horizontally at a low, constant temperature away from light and vibration. Even then there is no guarantee that the wine is what you’d hope for. Experts give very wide drinking windows for top wines sometimes spanning 25 years! Hedging their bets, perhaps, but top end wines can be drunk from 3 years to whenever the mood hits you and experts are merely giving you an estimated guide based on their years of accumulated tasting knowledge. Sometimes they get it wrong but if the wine has turned to vinegar, rest assured, it won’t make you ill, just bitter and disappointed.

The wines which age best generally come from the Old World – France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Red wines from these countries tend to have higher acidity which helps keep the wine. Sturdier wines with powerful tannins too are better potential keepers than anything light and fruity. Dry whites which age include Burgundies, wines from the Graves in Bordeaux and Chenin Blancs from the Loire. Top Champagnes can age magnificently, too. If you’re not sure, ask your wine merchant’s advice.

So, should you keep a wine that is pretty good at 5 or 10 years old and miss the chance of tasting those complex, hedonistic aromas and flavours it may develop at 20 years old? Or is the risk not worth taking? The choice is yours. But if there is any advice you should take away from this, it is better to drink a wine when it’s too young than when it’s too old. Looking at some of the dusty relics in my cellar, I need to take my own advice.