It is common for novices in matters of wine to think of all types of aging to improve quality and drinkability. In reality these days only few wines are worthy of long cellaring and they cost a lot. First, one must define quality and drinkability, both of which are perceived phenomena. They change according to background and local taste orientation. Old British consumers like slightly oxidized red wines, North Americans prefer fruit-forward products, Caucasians have a predilection for sweetish or sweet, tannic red wines, Germans consider slightly oxidized, old-style, off dry riesling (edelfirne).
Modern winemakers working in huge wineries with high turnover aim at producing fruit-forward, soft (low acid) wines which are meant to be consumed within one or two years of harvest. The majority of wines on the market today fall into this category (98 – 99 per cent of all wines),
In most cases wineries buy from growers according to their needs. A few grow their own and maintain a much better control over fruit quality and ripeness.
Gone are the days when fathers built up a wine cellar for their children and very few children can expect to inherit a cellar from their parents. In today’s quick consumption society, wine drinkers are rarely interested in cellaring a bottle of wine for years. They rather pay high prices and buy already cellared and mature wines in auctions.
First, the question must be answered as to what type of wine is cellar-worthy? These are generally wines of high alcohol, high acidity, rich in tannin, or high in sugar, or often a combination of two or three factors.
Thin (watery), barely ripe grapes yield acid, unbalanced, low-alcohol and poor-tasting wines, regardless of the expertise and efforts of the winemaker. Cellar-worthy wines originate from low yield vines, properly matured grapes, certain grape varieties, and good vintages. Low yields occur when vines are pruned properly and with low yield in mind.
Like many other special factors, the effects of pruning were discovered by a happy mistake. In 345 A. D. St Martin (protector saint of growers and winemakers) rode on his donkey to inspect the vineyards of the monastery near Tours in the Lorie Valley after the harvest was completed. He tethered his donkey to inspect the vines and upon his return found the donkey had chewed, several vines right down to the trunk. The following year, these vines grew more vigorous and bore the best fruit. Low yield vines generally produce better quality fruit that can be made to cellar worthy wines. Grapes must be physiologically ripe before harvest. Tasting the fruit rather then measuring the sugar content of berries can best assess this.
In many cases growers watch the sugar (brix) level of grapes before deciding harvesting time. In hot regions the sugar level may be right or even high but the fruit may still be unripe. In such regions careful growers make harvesting decisions based on extensive sampling of grapes to determine the level of physiological ripeness.
Manual, selective picking and sorting before pressing are crucial to producing cellar-worthy wines.
Of course careful harvesting must be exercised to ensure that all fruit is ripe and rotten berries are culled before pressing.
In some wineries the fruit is hand inspected bunch by bunch by two specially trained people. In many top-level chateaux managers employ teams to literally pluck each beery before they are pressed. This is more common in countries and regions with abundant land along with inexpensive labour.
The degree of pressing also contributes to agebility. Barrel and bottle aging also contribute greatly to quality, taste, texture and cellar-worthiness.
Barrel fermentation contributes to longevity if properly monitored, as does barrel aging. There are huge upright barrels (with capacities of 1500 to 9000 liters called botte in Italy) down to 225-liter barriques used in Bordeaux and Burgundy. The quality and provenance of barrel wood also contributes to the longevity of wine.
Red wines age better and longer than white wines. When properly and barrel-aged red wines are bottled, they may be cellar-worthy.
Barrel aging imparts desirable textural changes. It renders the wine smooth and texturally more refined. Smoky flavours originate in toasted barrels. There are different levels (light, medium and heavy) toasting. Each imparts a different flavour and intensity to the wine. The barrel wood also influences taste. American white oak imparts excessively strong both vanilla and oak flavours, whereas French oak from Allier is considered to be more suitable for wine aging. French oak is tighter grained and contains less vanilla. In addition to Allier, winemakers use Nevers, Troncais, and Limousin oak, all from France, in their aging programmes.
Canadian oak is considered to be better than Americana oak but requires longer wood seasoning to yield its best.
Slovenia, Hungary and Russia also produce suitable oak for barrels, but according to experts they are inconsistent in quality and expensive considering flaws in delivery. During barrel aging wines also clarify to some extent by gravity forces.
During bottle ageing, red wines change colour from purple to red, to brick red, and eventually to brown, which indicates total oxidation and hence that the wine is too old to be enjoyed. White wines may turn to gold and eventually old gold in colour.
When the temperature in cellars increase at the beginning of spring wines undergo a second minute fermentation called malo-lactic fermentation which encourages harsh malic acids to partially convert to much more soft and smooth lactic acid. Old wines are smooth, texturally more refined and appealing. Malo-lactic fermentation may occur both in barrels and bottles. It is widely used in the production of Beaujolais nouveau or for that matter all “nouveau” style wines.
The trick is to catch the wine when the fruit and bouquet are in balance and at their peak.
Vibrant fruit aromas and flavors fade to more complex flavours like to tobacco, smoke, rose petals, tar, pencil shavings, tannins, antocyans, and phenols conglomerate, forming long chains and fell to bottom. Such wines need decanting. Vintage ports fall into this category, as do amarones from Veneto in Italy, some Bordeaux chateau and red wines. In Chianti wines cherry and strawberry aromas turn more subtle cherry or strawberry compote flavours, plums in merlot wines to prunes, grape into raisins in Sherries.
In white wines, vibrant lemon, orange, pineapple, lychee fruit aromas fade into subtler and evanescent flavours. They turn from greenish-yellow to gold, to old gold and eventually brown.
In white wines, high acidity and sugar preserve the wine. A spatlese or above quality Mosel wine from
Germany can be cellared for years, and improves over time.
Overexposure to oxygen deteriorates wines, as does high storage temperatures, light, vibrations and lack of humidity.
Sauternes, Tokaji, vin santo, Marsala, Madeira, oloroso and sweet sherry wines cellar well.
In red wines cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, syrah a petit grain, agiorgitiko (St George), tannat, age well and in whites beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese-quality German rieslings, well made Chablis, Burgundies, Rias Baixas, sweet Barsac, ice wines from Ontario and elsewhere are known to age well.
Cellaring wine requires first and foremost the ability to determine whether the wine is age worthy, and then buying a case or more to cellar. Every year thereafter, a bottle should be tasted to assess the evolution of the wine. Once the wine has reached its potential then consumption should be accelerated. This tracking is a lot of fun for those who enjoy refined and elegant wines, which may represent moments of life altering experiences.