A perennial question that gets put to me comes from proud first-time parents: What wine can they buy of their child’s birth-year to serve with confidence at his or her coming of age? Nothing like the b to make those not usually sentimental about wine suddenly care about maturation potential.
Wine is one of the few foodstuffs that can improve with age, but it has to be said upfront, 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 Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab-blends should be aged longer than those based on Pinot Noir with Merlot, Pinotage and Shiraz somewhere in between.
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 from the modern era can typically be kept for around 10 years before reaching their peak of maturity and then tend to stay on sort of plateau of good drinking for a few years after that. Wines from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are often sublime for those lucky enough to taste them but winemaking was very different then…
In the case of white wine, local Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc should gain in complexity for about five years. It might surprise those who think the only appeal of Sauvignon Blanc is its upfront fruitiness that this variety can also take on more interest with time in bottle – because SA’s best examples of this variety typically have high acidities and low pHs (which goes towards wine stability), these can make 10 years in the bottle quite easily.
Consideration must also be given to those made in the style of Vintage Port, these fortified wines expressly designed for many years of bottle ageing: the Cape Vintage Reserves from the likes of Boplaas and De Krans are local examples which should conceivably 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.