One of winemaking’s enduring myths is that all wines improve with time; in fact the overwhelming majority of wines sold today are best drunk within a year or two of harvest. The reason for ageing wine is to give time for harsh tannins or acidity to mellow and to allow complex, ‘tertiary’ aromas and flavours to develop. Wine maturation is not an exact science: even winemakers can’t say with certainty when a wine will peak.
Good candidates for cellaring or ‘laying down’ include expensive, tannic reds (e.g. classed Bordeaux and Nebbiolo from Barolo) or premium whites with naturally-high acidity and low pH levels (e.g. German Riesling, Sylvaner and Pinot Noir, or Chenin Blanc from the Loire). But even wines like these are increasingly being made in a ready-to-drink style, as producers know that few modern-era drinkers have the patience or inclination to wait years to pull the cork. Wines which do not benefit from ageing are fresh, fruit-forward styles such as rosé, Pinot Grigio and, for the most part Sauvignon Blanc – although there are good examples of barrel-aged Sauvignon (often blended with Sémillon) from Bordeaux and also from California and Australia.
You don’t need a state-of-the art wine cellar to age wine but you should have somewhere dark, cool (10-13°C), slightly damp (ideally) and free from strong odours. Laying bottles on their sides is advised, to keep the wine in contact with the cork and stop it from drying out. Wines in large-format bottles (magnums etc.) age more slowly and gracefully than wines in standard containers, which partly explains the premium these giant bottles attract.
Image: Old 70s vintages in Bodegas Corral cellars, Rioja, Spain; © Curious Wines.