As featured in the last issue of Longevity: While getting older is usually fraught with negative implications, wine is a wonderful exception. It’s one of the few foodstuffs that can improve with age, and this is also one of its key fascinations.
It has to be said upfront, however, only a small subgroup of wines benefit from extended bottle maturation. As world-renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson MW notes, “Perhaps the top 10 per cent of all reds and five per cent of all whites (and those are generous estimates) will be more pleasurable and more interesting to drink when they are five years old than at one year old.”
How wine ages is a complex and inexact science – real wine geek stuff. Essentially, though, the more fruit, acid and phenolics that go into a bottle of red wine at the beginning, the more complex interactions there can be between all these compounds and the more rewarding it can be to age that bottle. The most obvious phenolics are tannins (responsible for the dry sensation that red wine leaves in your mouth) and colouring matter known as anthocyanins and these polymerise over time, eventually becoming too heavy to be held in solution and dropping out as sediment.
In the most basic terms, older red wines are softer and gentler, having lost the astringent character they had in their youth. There will also be a change in colour from black or deep purple to light brick-red. Even less is known about how white wine ages, although acidity is thought to be the preservative white counterpart to tannin.
So which wines will reward keeping? As a general rule, the more inky in colour and more mouth puckering in tannin a red wine is the better its ageing potential. In a local context therefore wines made from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz varieties should be aged longer than those based on Merlot or Pinot Noir. Different wines mature at different rates according to individual vintage conditions and the particular winemaking techniques used so predicting how long a wine will mature with benefit is difficult. Top South African reds should keep for around 10 years while a classed growth from Bordeaux might benefit from bottle age for 20 years or longer.
In the case of white wine, local Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc should gain in complexity for at least five years. The primary appeal of Sauvignon Blanc might be its purity of fruit, but even this variety can take on more interest with time in bottle, but again it should be an example made with serious intent.
If you want to be really confident that a wine will keep, then consider Vintage Port, which is expressly designed for many years of bottle ageing: Axe Hill, Boplaas, Bredell’s and De Krans are local examples which should easily go for two decades.
Bear in mind that as a wine ages it will lose its primary fruitiness and take on a more savoury character and deciding on when a wine is drinking at its best becomes a matter of your individual tolerance for more evolved aromas and flavours.