Hello Prince Albert! Aged wine can be a wonderful thing to taste and savor but how can we tell when a bottle should be kept for aging or when it should be consumed sooner than later? One of the first steps to choosing a wine to keep in your cellar is understanding the layers of complexity (or lack of) in the wines you taste and deciding if the wine will improve with time or fall off and lose its original qualities.
The flavor profile of a wine can be broken into three categories of complexity which will help indicate the appropriate amount of time to keep the bottle. The first group of flavors is called “simple” or “primary” and indicates a wine that is fruity and enjoyable but lacks depth of complexity. Fruity and intense as they are, these wines are meant to be consumed within a year or two and will not gain additional flavors or quality through bottle aging. Most, if not all entry-level or budget wines will fall into this classification such as the two affordable Merlots I tasted and discussed last week but even expensive bottles can be found here.
The next category of complexity is referred to as “secondary”. This type of wine has been created through winery techniques such as barrel aging, MLF (malolactic fermentation) and bottle aging. Barrel or oak aging is the most common approach to develop secondary flavors but many wineries will employ several techniques at once to create complex wines. Secondary flavors can be recognized as vanilla, caramel, spice, smoke, salt, butter, basically anything that adds on to the basic fruit flavors of a wine’s flavor profile through manipulation. Some of these types of wines can be aged to soften the flavors or mellow out the grippy tannins, resulting in an easier-drinking experience with notes of complexity. Often, this type of wine is more expensive.
The final category is a group of flavors known as “tertiary” flavors. These are sometimes called “developing” flavors and with high-quality wines, the character of the wine can transform subtly or radically with time spent in the bottle. Examples of tertiary flavors are mushroom, earth, honey, toffee, complex spices, petrol or nuts. A developing wine will have some of these flavors but they might be hiding behind the primary or secondary flavors. It is only when the tertiary flavors become more apparent or noticeable that a wine will be considered fully matured or developed. This practice can take several years and in some cases like Barolo, Bordeaux or certain grape varietals, it can take decades to achieve.
Once you start understanding the three levels of complexity for wines, you can decide if you’d like to age wine yourself or simply buy a well-developed/mature wine straight off the shelf. There are pros and cons to both aspects whether you are buying an aged wine or doing the aging yourself. To buy a quality, aged wine will cost you a decent amount of money and you also don’t know exactly how it has been stored over the years which adds a small bit of risk. By aging the wine yourself, you will save money but that monetary discount must be traded with patience. Since it is almost impossible to know how a wine is proceeding with its development, the usual approach is to buy several bottles and taste one every few years to keep track of its flavor development. The big risk here is trying to age wines that do not develop at all and in the end, you’ve wasted your time waiting for your purchase to turn into something it never will.
These are some of the basics of choosing which wines to lay down and which to drink but other factors include grape varietal, quality of the vineyard, specific winery practices and one of the most important considerations, the location and designation of where the wine comes from. For instance, buying a basic Bordeaux wine for around $20 and a Bordeaux Grand Cru Classe. In this case, the quality of grapes from the Grand Cru grapes will overshadow and outperform any wine from the basic category and produce superior wine.
Another thing to consider is the grape varietal used to make a wine. In order to age properly, a red wine needs good tannins (like those found in Cabernet Sauvingon) which provide the wine with complex plant proteins and other biological compounds which break down and recombine over time, literally transforming the wine as it rests. With a bit of practice, you will begin to notice (sometimes from the first sip) what level of complexity the wine is currently at and where it can possibly go in the future.
The single wine I picked this week is a Chianti Classico with around 10 years of age on it. This wine has several layers of complexity and the funky animal note is distinct and surprisingly, not off-putting. The tannins are still high which means it can soften up a bit more. Besides that, I’d like to see where those animal and forest floor notes go with a bit of development. Alas, I’ve drank my only bottle and I have no others to compare mine with. Such is the risk and reward for consuming and drinking aged wines; once they’re gone, they’re gone! So do some research, ask a knowledgeable salesperson for some tips and take a shot at it! Here is my wine pick of the week!
Vignamaggio Monna Lisa Gran Selezione 2013: (DOCG Chianti Classico, Italy). Dry red, deep ruby color with definite fading at the edge. The complex bouquet takes a bit of time to open up but the nose begins with spiced dried cherries, sweet soil, forest floor, moss, barnyard/animal funk a hint of pepper and fresh raspberries. On the palate, earthy cherry and raspberry fruit rush forward with velvety textures and flavors of delicate moss, forest berries, funky animal notes (barnyard/blue cheese) and soft, tingling pepper. After the flash of animal and earthy notes comes a long, concentrated finish of pepper spice, forest fruits and medium-plus acidity. The delay of the acidity allows the smooth, well-integrated flavors to sit in the mouth which makes for a balanced experience with distinct sections of flavor. Fruity, earthy, animal and then spice. Medium-plus body adds the perfect weight to the wine with high, chewy tannins. This beautiful old-world wine deserves a high-quality protein served alongside such as grilled steaks or pasta Bolognese. This would also pair wonderfully with crostini, Brie, roasted tomatoes, oil and balsamic. This wine is drinking well now but can still age a few more years to soften the tannins and add a creamier/smoother texture to the wine. Developing flavors are the animal notes and a hint of toasty character. Outstanding! $65, 14% ABV
Cheers and thanks for reading!