Ageing Wine – A Beginner’s Guide

Harry Lambourne
2nd November 2023

Many will espouse the benefits of drinking aged wine. Yet, ageing wine isn’t completely straightforward. Without a doubt, it produces a unique taste experience which can be worlds apart from youthful wine. However, you’d be wrong to think all wine benefits from ageing.

If you’ve got a 5 year old bottle of £5 supermarket Sauvignon Blanc that got lost at the back of a cupboard, then it may be well past what you class as drinkable. Whereas 2021 Vintage Barolo may not begin to shine as it should for a few years.

Piedmont Wine Region
Vineyards in Piedmont – Plenty of Wine To Be Aged Here

We’re here to give you a quick guide on all things ‘ageing wine’. This will include how you should store the wine, as well as the structural and flavour components which allow wine to develop over time. We will also take you through the different tasting notes which are commonly associated with aged wine and some great recommendations for wines which benefit from some long term ageing.

If you’ve got the space for a small wine rack in a cool, quiet place then maybe it’s time to start picking up some bottles to save for the long term. There are a number of ways to branch out here. Buy the same wine from a few vintages, or buy wines from the same region and vintage. It will really give your palate a chance to expand.

So, for the patient among you, let’s learn about ageing wine.

Ageing Wine – Storage

Save Money On Wine | Ageing Wine
Wine Cellars – This Can Be The End Goal, Not Where You Start

This is where it all succeeds or fails. You may have purchased a perfect Château Petrus at auction, (but likely not as it’s too expensive), but if you leave it in the wrong place then nothing will save it. Wine is a fragile thing and any number of environmental factors can cause that luscious liquid in the bottle to spoil.

Things which can cause wine to spoil include temperature, light, being set upright and excessive vibration. Let’s look at these in more detail.

In terms of temperature you want wine to be cool and constant. Ideally, it should aim to be at below room temperature. This sits at around 10 to 15 degrees.

Even though it might be the best place to grab a glass, a kitchen can be a nightmare for wine storage. Who hasn’t got hot and bothered when working away at a hot stove? Well, that’s exactly how your wine feels! Large fluctuations in temperature are to be avoided at all costs. So, no wine racks by radiators either.

Next up, light! Part of the reason that many wine bottles have dark coloured glass is to protect them from the light. However, these can only do so much. If you plan on ageing wine, you must let them rest in the dark. The light can heat up the wine or restructure the very chemicals within it. This can have an adverse effect on the flavour.

Now, we will discuss laying it on its side. There is a reason that all wine racks will have neat little holes to slot in your favourite wines. It all relates to the cork. If a wine is left upright, then overtime it will dry out. This causes it to shrink and lets more oxygen get into the wine and cause it to oxidise. This will heavily impact the flavours and it won’t be in a good way. So, if you’re ageing wine, then keep the wine on its side. This keeps the liquid in contact with the cork and keeps it moist.

Last up, the vibrations. No matter what the Beach Boys say, there are no ‘good vibrations’ when it comes to wine. Do not stick a wine rack above your washing machine, or below the stairs! There’d be no wine for Harry Potter. This is the easiest one to sort out. If a wine is constantly shaking about, then it will disturb the wine and potentially unsettle the flavours inside.

So, to summarise, we want a consistently cool and dark place where the wine can be peacefully laid down on its side and not be bounced around. If you can meet these criteria, then you’re well on your way to successfully ageing wine. There’s a reason that you hear the term ‘wine cellar’. That’s because a cellar, (if you have one), is a great place to store wine. However, as long as your storage nook hits the criteria mentioned, then you should be safe from disaster.

Ageing Wine – Which Wines To Age

Not all wines are created equal, but you likely knew that for yourself. Yellow Tail Pinot Noir and Premier Cru Burgundy are not the same. The flavour intensity, the structure and the complexity are worlds apart. This is why collectors don’t clamour to auctions to fight over 20 year old bottles of bottom shelf supermarket wine. Not all wines are meant to be aged.

In fact, quality is not the only determining factor of whether a wine is age worthy. There are many great wines that should not be aged. Think of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Prosecco and Beaujolais. These are excellent examples of world-class wine which you should enjoy young.

Prosecco Wine Region
Don’t Age Prosecco Like You Would Champagne!

As a good rule of thumb, if a wine is fresh, vibrant and looks to accentuate its fruity or floral notes then it likely wasn’t meant to sit in a cellar for years. Over time, these fresh and fruity characteristics will become dull. The wine will no longer display the characteristics which you’ve bought it for.

Instead, look for wines which have tannins, (for red wine), structure, sugar and acidity, (as well as flavour complexity and intensity). These will be the wines which will be most well-equipped to long term ageing. They’ll also be wines which change and develop in desirable ways.

So, ageing wine does not simply mean picking up a bottle of wine you like and hiding it away for years. Pick the right wines.

Ageing Wine – What Does Aged Wine Taste Like?

We’ve mentioned the importance of oxidation in wine. If the process happens too quickly, then it can spoil a wine. However, when wines are aged slowly this process can benefit the wines. Slowly, the chemical structure of the wine changes through gentle and slow exposure to a smaller amount of oxygen.

This causes the fresh and vibrant elements of youthful wine to fade into the background and more savoury aromas take centre stage. The sweet spot of ageing wine will allow both these elements to show themselves. If you leave a wine too long, then it’s all savoury and lacking in any fruit flavour. Try some wines which have been aged to different degrees and find out which level of ageing is ideal for you.

You’ll see these tasting notes referred to as tertiary aromas. They are the tasting notes which have been introduced through the ageing process. If you want to look at the different kinds of tasting notes in greater detail, we’d recommend that you read our review of a structured approach to wine tasting. You can read it here.

Some common tertiary tasting notes include; almond, coffee, caramel, dried fruits, marmalade, tar, cooked fruit, petrol, ginger, mushroom, leather, game, tobacco and forest floor.

Wine Appreciation - A Guide to Wine Tasting
Learn To Look For Tertiary Tasting Notes

Ageing Wine – Which Wines Age Well?

There are heaps of wines which age well and they don’t have to come from one of the famous regions that we will mention here. Remember to think about the points from the last section. 

Maybe, you’ve found a bottle of Croatian Cabernet Sauvignon that you absolutely love. Well, it will have tannins, acidity and the structure that comes with that grape variety. Then have a think, does it have a sufficient complexity and flavour intensity? If it ticks these boxes then maybe it’s time to pick up a case and crack one open periodically over the years. This is the fun part of ageing wine. Find your favourites and watch how they change over time.

Let’s take a look at some regions which are likely to offer some great options for ageing wine.

Piedmont

We’ll start with the King of Wines – Barolo. Barolo, (from the Italian region of Piedmont), is everything you should be looking for when ageing wine. High tannin, high acid and deeply complex and powerful flavours. In fact, it is only recently through modernised winemaking techniques and a change in consumer habits that younger Barolo has been consumed more readily.

There was debate into how Barolo should be made and it was even made into a documentary called the ‘Barolo Boys’. Traditionalists wanted to retain old methods of ageing in big Slovenian casks for years and years. Some traditionalists even favour a 50 year ageing period between harvest and selling.

Barolo Boys
Barolo Boys Documentary Poster

The modernists instead looked to produce Barolo that matured earlier. You wouldn’t have to wait for 10 or 20 years to crack open a Barolo. Now, they can be enjoyed after a few. Although, they’ll need some serious decanting.

Either way, if you’re thinking of ageing wine, then Barolo is a great place to start. Barolo will spend 3 years in the barrel before release, so another few in the bottle after that could be sufficient for you. However, if you want to experience some serious changes, eight to fifteen years could be seen as the sweet spot. Expect powerful notes of dried fruit, tar, leather and game to all be present in an aged Barolo.

Hunter Valley

Now, we move onto something truly unique in the world of wine – Hunter Valley Semillon. These wines are profoundly neutral in flavour when first bottled with a level of acidity that is hard to match and more akin to sour sweets than fine wine. However, let them sit and watch them sing.

The Hunter Valley region of Australia, which sits in the state of New South Wales, is a bit of an anomaly. It is influenced by warm ocean currents from the tropics and can be very warm and humid. Yet, here Semillon thrives. The wines are picked very early due to cloudy, humid conditions which can cause rot.

The still white wines which come out are bracing with lime and white pepper notes. However, lay it down for 5-10 years and it develops into something spectacular. It becomes this rich, nutty and buttery fruit bomb that is like nothing else you will encounter in the world of wine. If you’re looking into the possibility of ageing wine then a Hunter Valley Semillon should find its way into your wine rack.

Bordeaux
Bordeaux River in Autumn Evening
Bordeaux River in Autumn Evening

We couldn’t discuss ageing wine without mentioning Bordeaux. This can be a great one stop shop if you’re looking to start ageing wine. Bordeaux produces age-worthy red, white and sweet wines. So, let’s look at them all.

The reds of Bordeaux are traditionally blends made up primarily of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. They are structured, elegant reds which tick all the boxes required for long-term ageing. They’ll deliver these powerful savoury notes which combine with touches of forest floor, leather and game once they’ve had a bit of time in the bottle.

The best whites of Bordeaux tend to blend Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Some will even see some oak and lees ageing to impact buttery, smokey and toasted notes. Over time, you’ll get flavours of marmalade and honey really come forward as well as touches of dried fruits.

Last, but in absolutely no means least, are the sweet wines of Sauternes. These are aromatic with flavours of citrus rind, fresh citrus fruit and cooked green and stone. The tasting notes are near endless with fine Sauternes. Yet, through ageing notes of ginger, jam and caramel really start to shine which compliment notes of cooked fruit perfectly. The wine’s sugar content becomes more prevalent as the wine’s acidity drops down. If you’re ageing wine, always include a few sweet wines in the mix.


That’s been our beginner’s guide to ageing wine. We hope we have shined some light on the secrets to a good starter wine cellar and pointed you in the right direction for you to choose the wines which you want to fill it with.

Ageing wine can be a truly rewarding experience for anyone who likes a glass of the good stuff.


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