Wine Age - What the Vintage Year May Not Tell You

A common - and often misinformed - assumption elevates old vinos to the heights of true wine excellence. Young wines, however, boast their own aromatic and flavorful merits, which are as distinct and keen as those of old vintages. To preference and taste, age is nothing but a number

By: Dimitria Vitanova

Posted on: February 4, 2016

Red wines in a glass

Imagine: you are in a spacious room with soft, amber light that capers in the rows of slim, dark bottles, set on a long white-draped table. The constant low hum of various, simultaneous conversations fills the space. Attendants shift around, pick tall footed glasses and raise them high to inspect their crimson contents – some thick and dark, other clear and bright. People around you take tiny sips; their looks contemplative. A suited man standing nearby puts his glass down and jots brief notes.  

You are at a wine tasting event. You start off with young wines, those that have been recently bottled, and steadily proceed to older vintages that exhibit complex overtones – from the early 2000s, the 1990s, the 1970s. If you are lucky, you may even sample some rare, exquisite wines that push into their centenary.    

Do not forget, however, that age is relative. Some wines take decades to reach maturity, while others may require as few as a couple of years. Some ripen with grace; others spoil with vanity. 

“Some wines that are four years of age are considered old yet others that are 30 years old are still considered young,” says Sharron McCarthy, certified wine specialist with Banfi Vintners. 

Age might simply be a number, but some common traits often emerge behind the digits. All their ingredients jostling for attention, young vinos gush with vitality and levity that may be hard to find in rich, mellow wines.

three wines in glasses

Young wines exude aromas and flavors that “tasters use metaphors such as cherry, raspberry, lemon or peach to describe,” says Roger Bohmrich, master of wine, independent consultant and wine educator. Mature vintages, on the other hand, have blossomed into nuanced bouquets, with streaks of age-inducing characteristics such as spices, mushrooms, tobacco and nuts, Mr Bohmrich says. 

At the wine tasting event, you opt for Centine Rosso, a dry red which is at its best a few years after bottling. A server calmly pours the ruby red liquid in a balloon glass until it fills half of it – the perfect amount to best appreciate the vino’s aromatics. A sip, a roll of the tongue. You detect black cherry and plum, only a hint of spice. Meant to be consumed within several years of bottling, it is a wine that is soft and pleasant in tannin. 

A natural plant polyphenol contained in grape skins, tannin is a common structural element of red wines, which contributes to their bitterness and astringency. It accentuates the youthfulness of vinos, but with some vintages, it might overwhelm other features. “Collectible luxury reds – Bordeaux, Brunello, Barolo or Hermitage,” Mr Bohmrich says, “may have imposing tannins that require cellaring to resolve (and also assure a long life).”

It is the presence of tannin, or the backbone of wines that carries their fruit character, as Ms McCarthy describes it, that enables aging and prevents spoilage. The presumption, however, that due to their high tannin content, red wines mature better than their white siblings – that are poorer in the natural preservative – does not always hold true.  

“Burgundy whites age well as do some Champagne,” says Alfonse Cevola, certified wine specialist and author. “I've had Gavi's and Fiano di Avellino's that were 30 years old and were quite lovely.”

Hence, the binary color distinction only amounts to a rudimentary gauge of wines’ maturity potential. So does grape variety. Most types of vine fruits spill their delectable juices in both young and old wines, Ms McCarthy says. In some vintages, nevertheless, winemaking and cellaring techniques presuppose and enhance aging. Vintages picked for aging tend to ferment and mature in wood barrels – mainly oak, whereas young vinos may spend as little as several months in stainless steel cask.

 “Like all of us, wines age better under optimal [cellar] conditions,” says Ms. McCarthy. “Optimal conditions for wine would be consistent, cool temperature in a dark, humid place free of vibration and where they are not being constantly disturbed (moved around).”

Oak wine barrels

And just like us, disparate wines – even under the same circumstances – advance with their own pace towards their zenith. Some mature quickly, others take time. Some are old for their age, others remain youthful even after decades. Wine experts define the latter as backward, and the former – forward. Backward vinos, which exhibit less complexity and structure than expected, benefit from aging. Whereas, their forward counterparts, which develop aromas and flavors uncharacteristic to their current stage of life, gain little from any further cellaring, Mr Bohmrich says. 

At the wine tasting, you take a sip of 1995 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, which ages for at least four years, with a minimum of two in wood. Keep in mind that all vinos are unique; but if you follow the flexible 20-year rule of thumb, Mr Cevola suggests for a loose indication of aged wines, that 21-year old  vintage has just reached its maturity. With a liquid velvet finish, traces of lush plum and hints of chocolate and licorice linger delight your palate.

You are fortunate – mature wines are hard to come across. Outside wine tastings and auctions, they may rather qualify as a rarity. Easy on the purse, young wines dominate the racks of restaurants and stores. Even if a vintage from several harvests ago mingles among its more recent kin, chances are it is a ‘left-over,’ Mr Bohmrich says.    

“Younger wines can be more affordable as they may not be aged as long, which is one of the components in pricing – it costs money for storage space as well as aging vessels such as oak barrels. However, there are some young, very limited production wines that can be quite expensive,” Ms McCarthy says. 

Best young and old wines in the market with notes and prices

The wine tasting event draws toward its end. You have been treated to several vintages – young and mature. All of them bear their unique aromas and flavors. Some boast the fruitiness and lightness of their youth, others succumb to the richness and ripeness of maturity. If there is nugget of advice you take home, it comes from Mr Cevola:

“Don't judge a book by its cover. Sometimes young wines (like young people) can be very deep and engaging. Not all old people or wine are interesting. Don't buy a wine to impress anyone. And don't think only old, aged wines are the epitome of wine appreciation.”   

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