Stupid Question ™
Feb. 18, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Why is old wine better?
A: Actually, 90 percent of the wine on the market is not better when it’s old.
Notions to the contrary are derived from a few very fine wines that do improve with age, and a misunderstanding of the meaning of a wine’s “vintage.”
All wines are “aged” in barrels or vats at the winery for period of a few months to a decade. This allow various chemical processes to make them alcoholic and develop a complex flavor.
Most of these wines, and certainly all of the types available at your local Big Bear, are ready to drink at purchase and in fact will start to sour after a couple years.
However some very fine wines, along with champagne and port, will improve with further aging inside the bottle. (This has only been true since the invention of the bottle with the air-tight cork in the 1600s—before then, old wine was decidedly worse.)
The fine red wines of Bordeaux, for example, are dark and biting when young. Over a decade or so of aging, their flavor will soften and diversify, and the color will lighten.
The early bite and color come from tannins and anthrocyans—substances in the grapes’ skin, seeds and stems. Eventually, these substances link into large molecules that precipitate out as sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
This lowers the bite and the color. It also liberates glucose and some acids which alter the wine’s flavor. Meanwhile, mysterious “flavor compounds” are also undergoing changes. The chemistry is not well understood, but leads to that complex flavor/aroma that connoisseurs call “bouquet.”
The old-is-better overgeneralization (which one expert has termed “wine necrophilia”) is also spurred by the presence of vintage dates on many bottles. Vintage is the year the wine’s grapes were harvested.
The year of vintage tells you something meaningful only if the wine comes from a place where variable weather can result in great grapes one year and lame grapes the next. If you know 1990 brought a great Burgundy crop, for example, you know the vintage to look for.
But the average drinker isn’t likely to notice anyway. Vintage only really matters to champagne and port brewers. They’re so picky that if it’s a bad year, they’ll make somewhat inferior “non-vintage” products blended from previous years’ wines. Only when the crop is good do they make a vintage product (which is only about 50 percent of the time).
So when James Bond orders a 1961 Dom Perignon, it’s not because it’s old, it’s because of the weather in 1961.
What’s truly important to the quality of wine is the type of grapes, winemaking method and storage conditions.
As Frank Schoonmaker said in his “Encyclopedia of Wine,” “It’s likely that more wine has been drunk too old than too young.”