Aging Wine 101

A common assumption about aging wine is that that longer that you keep it, the better it will get. However, it is a misconception that wine must be aged. So when we hear the frequent question “how long do I keep wine before drinking?”—the short answer is: It depends.

Throughout the world, most wine is meant to be consumed ‘young,’ or relatively soon after it is produced, within 12 to 18 months. The floral fruits of Rosés are freshest within the first months up to a year after vintage, and Beaujolais Nouveau, released within weeks of harvest, is ideally consumed right away. Even wines that are known to improve with age are typically not meant for a long sojourn in the cellar. Fact is, some wines will mature and improve over time, while others will not.

Aging Wine: White

Aging wine lessons from Riesling.

Our wine library is the closest we have to a crystal ball. A vertical tasting of our Rieslings let us know how all the variables play out in the bottle over the years.

Crisp and fruity white wines, like Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and light Chardonnays, should be enjoyed when they are fresh and young. Other whites, like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and, particularly, late harvest, dessert (including Sauternes, which are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion), and ice wines can be aged and do develop interesting complexities over the years. Generally, when aging a white wine the higher the residual sugar at bottling, the better the chance that aging will improve the wine’s flavor.

Aged Rieslings can have prominent flavors of toast and honey; the fruit becomes more subtle with flavors and aromas of peaches, nectarines and apricots. Also, sugars and acids become more integrated with the fruit, making the wines fuller and richer. In drier Rieslings, citrus flavors diminish and characteristics of mineral, smoke, and petrol become more prominent. With Gewürztraminer, the floral notes and tropical flavors can evolve into a golden-hued wine with hints of dried apricot, honey mint, beeswax, and lemon meringue.

Aging Wine: Red

Aging red wines is tied to the opposite of sweetness. The skins of the grapes provide not only color, but also bitter tannins (like a strong tea). Tannins are an acidic preservative important to the long term maturing of red wines. Additional tannin can come from oak during barrel aging.

Over time, tannins will precipitate out of the wine and settle as sediment in the bottle, revealing the complexity of the wine’s flavor from fruit, acid, and all the myriad other substances that make up a wine’s character and balance. The key to this process is time.

Sometimes a winery will do preliminary aging for you. At Sheldrake Point, we bottled aged our 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon for over a year before releasing it.

Cases and Cellars

The variables of Finger Lakes weather, as well as differences in winemaking decisions from year to year, can impact the acidity, tannins, and sugars that all contribute to each wine’s behavior over time. Therefore, there is only one rule for you to know about aging wine: Once you get the bottle home, and if you can resist enjoying the wine right away, how you store it is the single variable you can control.

A cool, dark place where temperature fluctuations are minimal is ideal to get the most out of an aging wine experiment. Exposure to sunlight and heat will absolutely ruin all the pleasing flavor your wine might develop with time.

As wine is always evolving in the bottle, many people buy by the case. How do you know when a particular wine might be just right? With a case on hand, you can pull out a bottle to sample at six months, a year, two years, and get the aging exactly right!

Aged Wine at Sheldrake Point

At Sheldrake Point, we occasionally find ourselves in our wine library picking through older vintages to see how a given wine has aged. These tastings are the closest we have to a crystal ball.

Here are some observations in vertical tastings of our Rieslings:

2005 Riesling (2% RS): 2005 produced fresh, crisp white wines and bold reds. Eight days of rain prior to harvest produced some Botyris cinerea – or noble rot, a benign fungus that can produce sweeter, complex wines. The wine had a fairly closed nose with honey and peachy apricot. Sugars and acids were well integrated. (Sampled in 2009.)

2007 Riesling (2.3% RS): 2007 had a lot of sun. Aromas were somewhat austere, with spicy apple and pear notes backed by herbal essence. The acidity was lively and somewhat grassy. (Sampled in 2009.)

2008 Riesling (3.6% RS): In 2008, April was warm, followed by a cool May, June and July were warm and unusually wet. September was dry, but average temperatures prevailed in the fall. Conditions were perfect for Botyris cinerea. This wine has a vibrant nose with aromas of fresh peach and honeysuckle. It finishes rich and soft. (Sampled in 2009.)

2010 Riesling (2.1% RS): 2010 was the hottest year in the Finger lakes in almost 40 years—we had more heat that year than Napa or Sonoma! We had good rainfall, though, so there weren’t problems with drought. The 2010 shows the effects of this beautiful weather, as it’s aged beautifully. There are notes of lime honey, peach and white flower on the nose. It’s rich and lush on the palate, and has a long finish carried by acidity. (Sampled in 2015.)

2012 Riesling: The vintage was very much like 2010, with lots of heat, but less rainfall. The 2012 Riesling also has notes of white flower, but in this case accompanied by notes of beeswax and raspberry. The palate is marked by bright acidity, and flavors of lime, lemon, and (at this point) a somewhat shorter finish than the 2010. (Sampled in 2015.)

Over the Hill

Eventually all wine will “go over the hill,” so even wines meant to be kept for many, many years should be drunk before it’s too late. How late is too late? You only know for sure because you open the bottle and the wine tastes bad. Learn from other people’s experiences with aging wine—ask winemakers, sommeliers, and wine shop owners. Or, buy wines by the case and learn over time from your own observations.

Chuck was attracted to the Finger Lakes wine industry during his graduate work at the Cornell Hotel School and was instrumental in the transformation of the old abandoned dairy farm to today’s winery and vineyard. As principle owners, he and his wife Fran assume the risk of the venture and personally see to its priorities and requirements.  Chuck’s focus is on the management and company systems and processes.  When not in the office, he and Fran may also be working with the staff, doing repairs, tending the gardens, or chatting with visitors.