Age before beauty?

You have treated yourself a bit and bought an expensive case of red wine. Now you would like to know when the optimal time would be to drink this wine. In my line of work I often get this question…In other words, what is the ageing potential of a red wine?

I attended a great Barolo and Barbaresco tasting my brother in law hosted a few months ago where we tasted some old vintages of the 60’s and 70’s… The colour of these wines were a bit brown, and in most cases the fruit on the nose not very prominent, which is not surprising given the age of these wines, but the tannin and mouth feel of these wines older than myself were still incredibly full bodied and great! Really an eye opener, dankie ou swaer…

Barolo wines

During the bottle ageing of red wines its chemistry thus changes significantly over time. This is mainly due to the tannins and anthocyanins related compounds further binding to each other, leading to the wines eventually becoming less bitter and at a later stage also less astringent. The bouquet of the wine also changes, with less primary, red fruit flavours on the nose and more matured aromas, such as savoury, plum and even a bit of oxidative aromas developing over time. The colour also changes from a bright purple/red colour to more a brick red and eventually brown shade.

Now a number of factors influences how rapidly a red wine will mature in the bottle. The obvious one is temperature. You can get the best Burgundy or Bordeaux money can buy, but leave it on your ceiling and you will end up drinking something akin to fruit salad dressing after a typical South African summer. The cooler you are going to leave your wine, the longer it will be able to mature.

The wine’s own chemical composition is obviously also crucial in terms of ageing potential. Scientific research on Burgundy wines have shown that wine experts agree that wines with a more intense colour and higher levels of tannins and astringency have potential to age longer. They thus kept the colour, mouth feel and aromas of the wines in mind when deciding on ageing potential. However, this work was done only once on red wines to assess if these experts agree on the ageing potential of certain wines and the wines were not tasted again at a later stage to actually assess how these wines eventually matured.

We are currently also busy at the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University to assess the ageing potential of on South African red wines. We have followed the phenolic evolution (colour, tannin and anthocyanins composition) of a large number of SA red wines the past 24 months. Some of these wines were also tasted in a blind manner by winemakers just after malolactic fermentation, 6 months and 12 months in the barrel, as well as after another 12 months in the bottle. Each time we asked them to assess these wines in terms of their sensorial composition and ageing potential. Preliminary results indicate that a good colour and high tannins content is also important for SA winemakers when assessing a red wine’s ability to mature, with a good acidity also playing a role. Hopefully this project will give us some idea if one can actually predict if a young red wine has a good ageing potential, at least over the short to medium term… In 20 years’ time I want to sit on my own private island, sipping expensive matured red wine and not doing research anymore (-;

At this stage I really believe the best person to predict a red wine’s ageing capacity is the winemaker, especially if he/she has extensive experience working with a vineyard and the wine it produces over time. However, people’s preference of aged red wines also differ, making predicting it hard. So next time you read  in a magazine that the optimal time for that specific red wine you bought to drink is in “x” number of years, rather buy a whole case, store it at a cool temperature and open a bottle every few months to decide for yourself!

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