What Really Happens When Wine Ages?December 14th, 2022
We are frequently asked if wine really gets better with age. The answer is it depends.
Our winemaking philosophy is simple - craft wines that are enjoyable in their youth, but can mature with time, depending on the varietal. Aging influences a wine's color, aroma, flavor, and texture. Wines move from fresh, primary fruit to softer expressions with age. Ultimately, whether to age a wine depends on your preferences.
Aging can be broken down into two areas: aging before bottling and aging after. We begin with the aging process before bottling; however, the characteristics are very similar in both regards.
What is Aging?
Wine is a complex combination of many chemical compounds, which change as they interact with each other. Reactions between acids, sugars, alcohols, esters, and phenolic compounds influence the aromas, texture, and flavors in the bottle. When wine ages, we expect the wine to develop a mix of complementary flavors. As compounds react, they create new flavors, resulting in a wine that is both subtle, and layered.
Arguably, the most important element of aging wine is oxygen. Associate Winemaker at Coursey Graves, Matt Casalenouvo, notes that aging is, primarily, managing how oxygen interacts with wine. Winemakers manage oxygen interaction to 1) stabilize color, 2) smooth tannins, and 3) help build elegant flavors. All winemakers manage oxygen, but each winemaker has their unique style.
Coursey Graves wines mature in oak barrels, terracotta amphora, and stainless-steel tanks between 12 and 22 months before bottling. After bottling, oxygen is still the primary influencer; however, the amount of oxygen contacting the wine is limited. Glass wine bottles allow zero oxygen into the wine; while the corks allow a very small amount of oxygen to pass through. There are many styles and types of corks, but we use all-natural, whole corks. They offer an optimal level of oxygen transfer as the wine develops over time.
The most visual indicator of an aged wine is color. As white wines age, they often change from pale lemon to amber hues. As red wines develop, the color transitions from deep purple to a dusty garnet. Just as a cut apple changes color when it interacts with oxygen, wine does the same. In red wines, anthocyanins and flavanols bind together over time. When these compounds become too large, they fall out of the solution, resulting in a softening of color.
The texture is another property of wine that changes with aging. Grapes skins and seeds are a source of wine tannins. Since most white wines are made without grape skins, white wines have fewer tannins than red wines. Young wines tend to have more prominent tannins. As anthocyanin and flavanol compounds form, they affect the color and texture we perceive on the palate. Tannins appear gentler or more rounded as the wine ages.
Contact with dead yeast cells (lees) can also add layers of richness and texture to the wine. This process is known as sur lie aging, meaning 'on lees' in French. The 2019 Coursey Graves Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon aged 22 months in French oak barrels on the lees. This process assists in developing the mouthfeel of the wine and contributes to the weight on the palate. Once in the bottle, wines that have been sur lie aged will begin to reveal layers of aromas and flavor, including pastry or toasted notes.
Many influences shape the aroma of the wine. Choices during the winemaking process largely contribute to the aroma in the glass (e.g., oak barrels, yeast, acid conversions). Additionally, reactions between acids, sugars, alcohols, esters, and phenolic compounds in wine play a large role. As compounds react over time, aromas merge, creating complex bouquets. Fresh, bright, primary aromas of fruit and floral begin to fade, giving way to a quieter expression. Secondary aromas (the result of the winemaking process) become more pronounced, offering notes of chocolate, cedar, or coffee in red wines.
Many flavors in wine are a result of the fruit as it grows on the vine. These flavors are referred to as primary flavors, and reflect fruit, floral, and herbal notes. Secondary flavors result from the winemaking process and stylistic choices of the winemaker. Oak barrels and the amount they have been toasted greatly influence the aroma and flavor of a wine. Our house cooper, Atelier Centre, steam bends our barrels, which offers a much more subtle toast influence, and allows the fruit and terroir to shine. Tertiary flavors result from aging and can include flavors of leather, tobacco, coffee, or dried or stewed fruit.
As wines age, primary aromas and flavors tend to soften resulting in a more sophisticated profile. A balance of primary, secondary, and tertiary flavors/aromas is a strong indicator of outstanding wines. When considering which wines to hold in the cellar, there are no right or wrong answers. Your preference is the answer. Do you prefer a bold, fruit-forward wine or a velvet-textured wine with deeper layers of flavor? Cheers!