Although the image of an old bottle of wine, crusted with cellar age–label peeling off–is a romantic one, the perception that all wine–or even most wine–needs years of aging is an incorrect one.
While all wine benefits from a few months of rest after bottling to recover from the trauma of the sudden oxygenation, sulfur dosage and rough handling that accompanies the bottling proces–so called “bottle shock–most of the world’s wines are ready to drink when they hit the shelves, or a few months after.
So what wines should you age?
Most white wine is meant to be consumed within the year the vintage is current. There are exceptions–most classified-growth white Burgundy continues to evolve for 3-5 years (in some cases more) after bottling and the same can be said for dry, high-acid whites like Riesling, Albarino/Alvarinho, and Gruner Veltliner from better vineyard sites. And there are a small handful of white wines that are meant to age for a decade or more. These are usually either sweeter wines like German Riesling and Chenin Blanc from Vouvray in France–the sweetness acts as an additional preservative–or white wines which spend several years in oak and are deliberately partially oxidized: white Riojas, the Garrafeira whites from Portugal and the weirdly delicious wines from Jura, France.
(I will say that, with a couple exceptions, what these white wines do is evolve rather than improve. They’ll be different and present new flavors and aromas with time but that evolution is merely interesting, and not necessarily an improvement.)
But that represents a percentage–I’m going to arbitrarily say with no substantiation whatsoever less than 1%–of the white wine that is produced in the world. They also tend to be the most expensive.
Red wines need to spend more time in the bottle but thankfully most producers–except the French and Napa Valley Cab growers–generally hold their wines back for release until they are ready to be consumed. In the rush for cash, the French often release their reds too early–especially the Burgundies–and you’d be hard pressed to find a premium Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet that wouldn’t benefit from at least 2-3 (a dozen) more years in the bottle. Compare that to the Gran Reservas from Rioja, Spain where many producers’ current releases are the 2000 vintage–or even earlier. But hey, ya gotta get paid.
Since one of the most important chemical processes that takes place in the aging of wine is the one by which tannin binds with pigment and forms a precipitate, the more tannic the varietals are in a wine, the more they benefit from bottle aging. So the more “robust” and gum-grabbing a wine–Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tannat–the more it will benefit from extra time in your cellar. Tannins will mellow and more fruit and spice will emerge. Fruitier grapes–Zinfandel, Garnacha–don’t need as much time as the fruit flavors will start to dissipate with age. And while few red wines will be harmed by an extra 3-5 years in the bottle, few–even very expensive ones– also will benefit from any more than an extra 5-7 years wait after release. And the exceptions that prove the rule–those wines that do need 15 years or more–are almost invariably ultra-premium and very rare.
And of course there are numerous exceptions to all of the above statements–Garnacha, while generally short-lived, also forms the backbone of the wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the best examples can improve for a dozen years or more. Viognier is almost universally regarded as a white wine meant to be drunk within a few years of bottling, but Chateau-Grillet produces one meant to age for 10 years or more.
But speaking to the every day wine consumer, if your white wine’s vintage is within 1-2 years of 2011 and your red wine vintage is within 3-4 years of 2011, drink it. For a wine you find particularly interesting, do what I do: buy three bottles and drink one now, drink one a year from now, and save one for a special dinner several years down the road.
And now, some approachably-priced wines for aging a few extra years:
Whites: Oak-aged white Riojas, Chablis, old-vine Albarino/Alvarinho, old-vine Gruner Veltliner, Northern California Gewurztraminer.
Red: Rioja Crianza and Reserva, cool-climate California Zinfandel, Sonoma County Petite Sirah, old-vine Languedoc-Roussillon wines.
Those lists are by no means all-inclusive. Other suggestions?