When it comes to wine and the urban myths that surround it, I guess the most common one is the notion that all wines get better with age. The truth is, not all of them do.
“But James, how are we supposed to know which ones mature well?” I hear you ask (I actually didn’t hear anybody ask me, but I’m weaving a thread here). Don’t worry! I will reveal all! Well… just the basics for now.
Normally, I prefer to write pieces on wine culture and regularly make the point that I am proud to be a wine enthusiast from a northern working class background but, today, I’m putting my science hat on as I thought it would be a good idea to go through one of the more technical sides to wine.
First things first: wherever you’re buying a bottle of wine, be it from a supermarket, Majestic, Virgin Wines or an independent vintner, it will normally be ok to drink then and there. It’s just the balance, and therefore taste, of some wines get better as time goes on. This all depends on the grapes that the wine is made from and if it contains much tannin.
Tannins are natural polyphenols (a structure of organic chemicals) that can be found in a number of foods and drinks. They’re common in tea, dark chocolate, walnuts and… grapes. More specifically grape skins.
Basically, if something is high in tannin then it will be dry and a bit bitter (think about how a piece of rich dark chocolate tastes). A basic/general rule of thumb is that the more tannin content in wine, the better it gets with age.
Now, if you’re new to wine, this whole concept can be daunting, overwhelming and off putting because how are you supposed to know which grapes/wine are high in tannin? Like most people, I normally buy a bottle to have that night/week so when I’m buying wine and I see a certain type made in a specific year, I still sometimes (most of the time) have to stop and think/look up on Google if it will be a good time to drink it.
I thought I’d start off easy and just focus on a few well known red wines. So here is a list of the most popular grapes at the moment, the wines they produce and how long they should be aged for…
Cabernet Sauvignon: Regularly found in Bordeaux style wines. It starts to peak at about five years and carries on until it’s around 15-20 years old. I have a four year old bottle of Pomerol (a bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot) at home and am waiting another two years to open it up (It’s killing me, I’m very impatient). I’m sure it would be lovely now but I think the flavours will have opened up even more in a couple of years.
Merlot: Everyone knows Merlot – a light red that is often found in Napa Valley (California) and Chile. Often blended with cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux style wines, merlot’s peak time to drink is between 2-10 years. A friend of mine kindly sent me a 10 year old bottle of Navarra (60% merlot content) and it was superb. See the review here.
Tempranillo: The most famous grape in Spain! You will know Tempranillo if you drink Rioja. It’s makes lovely, full bodied red wine which is often blended with grenache to give it a bit more of an aromatic presence. Ideally I would drink a Tempranillo after about four or five years but it will keep maturing and becoming richer until it completely peaks at around 10 years, then starts its decline. If you’re in a shop and want to buy a Rioja then I’d recommend looking to see if it says ‘Gran Réserva’ on the bottle. This means it spent at least five years ageing, three of which will have been in oak.
Pinot Noir: My favourite grape/wine. I love most versions of Pinot Noir, whether it is from Chile, Oregon, Australia or Burgundy (my personal favourite). It’s a light red wine, and doesn’t have a large amount of tannin it, so this is a good one to drink young. As soon as Pinot Noir is released it is good to drink (in my opinion) and it normally keeps well for up to about five years. Having said that, I had a five year old pinot noir the other day and thought it could have had another year in the bottle (see our review on Primarius 2011 Oregon Pinot Noir). Also, wines from Burgundy are known to mature well, so if you do have a bottle of something like Givry or Pommard then feel free to leave it for longer than five years. I recently opened a 2008 Pommard and it was delicate, yet complex and mature.
Malbec: You hear the word Malbec and instantly think of Argentina. Enjoying a lovely heavy Argentinian Malbec with a thick steak, all the smokiness and tannin bouncing around in your mouth – delicious! Malbec is still used in the Cahors region of France and again is beautiful with Steak Frites. Despite being a heavy tannin wine, Malbec can be enjoyed young. Recently, a very reasonably priced 2016 vintage, available at Asda won the ‘Platinum Best in Show’ prize at the Decanter World Wine awards. It can also age well and I would perhaps recommend drinking it between 2-10 years depending on the wine quality.
Shiraz/Syrah: Shiraz, known in parts of the New World and France as Syrah, is a huge red wine, meaning that it is full of tannin. It’s generally really full bodied and, when drinking it, it reminds me of chewing tobacco (in a good way). Shiraz does very well in Australia, as the hot climate helps make it stronger in alcohol and intensifies the flavours. It is also often found blended in iconic, traditional styles like Châteauneuf du Pape & Côtes du Rhône. Shiraz starts to peak at around five years and then typically starts its decline between 12-15 years.
It’s worth pointing out that the better quality of the wine, the better it will age. So, if you are looking to start a collection and age wine, I would perhaps seek some advice from a specialist vintner in an independent wine shop or go to a large Sainsbury’s and have a look in their ‘fine wine’ section. At the end of the day, this is a guide just to give you an idea of/introduction to the ageing process. If you are just picking a bottle up from the supermarket for the weekend then just use this guide to get the best out of their selection. Don’t worry if they only have a Cabernet Sauvignon that is two years old, it’ll still be drinkable, so get it down your neck!