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How Does Wine Taste Better With Age?

Why does older wine taste better?

It doesn’t, always. In fact, most of the time, it doesn’t. But the very best wines are the ones that are aged.

Here’s the thing: wine changes over time. It’s a complex set of chemical interactions that proceed even after it’s been put into the bottle. That’s especially true when that bottle is sealed with a natural cork, which allows very small amounts of oxygen in. Wine which is sealed in a box or with a cap won’t really age much, if at all.

Some aging is necessary for any wine. Initially it happens as the yeast convert sugar into alcohol. For some wines, that’s all that’s required: the famous Beaujolais is popularly consumed “nouveau”; grapes picked in early fall are wine by late November. At that point, it still tastes a lot like slightly more adult grape juice.

As the wine gets older, more chemical reactions occur. That’s especially true in red wines, which get a number of large organic molecules called “tannins”. They react with the other molecules producing a more complex, less fruity flavor. Even white wines can pick up tannins from being aged in oak barrels.

For most wines, a few months to a couple of years are all that is required, or beneficial. Most wines won’t get any better than that; it’s as good as it’s ever going to get. More aging will just dampen the flavors or make them taste flat.

The most expensive wines, however, will still be too “raw”-tasting at that point. They were packed full of flavorful molecules, and it will taste pungent at that point. They need time to continue to react and produce new, more complex flavors. They have to be designed for this; it won’t work with just any grape. The vintner uses their experience to know which ones will improve with age.

Those wines are expensive for a lot of reasons. They require longer storage under carefully-controlled conditions. There will be losses during that time, both due to evaporation and due to potential problems. They require the best grapes and the most experienced vintners. Some simply won’t turn out all that well despite the best treatment. You end up with only a small fraction of the crop producing the best wine, and so it’s more desirable, driving up the price. Barrels aren’t cheap, and the interaction of pores of the wood and the chemistry of the material affect the wine, further driving up the price for the best barrel-aged wines (and contributing to the losses due to evaporation).

There’s nothing wrong with young wines. In fact, we’ve gotten very experienced at producing good wines with young stock: vintners have far more tools at their disposal than they did even 50 years ago. Excellent wines are often aged just a few years, and in a lot of ways the long-term cellaring of wine is pretension rather than careful design.

It’s still of value, to a handful of experts. A great wine will continue to change through its life: rather than reaching a single perfect point it will continue to mature and become different. That’s interesting and fun, to those who enjoy wine a lot. But there’s no need for that when you’re just looking for a nice wine with dinner.

There’s still a difference between the least expensive wines that are just thrown together from whatever’s available, which sure isn’t going to get any better as it sits. Depending on your tastes there’s a price point where you get sufficient complexity without having to spend a fortune. But “old” is not always beneficial, and most of the time, a bottle you pick up is going to be designed to be consumed as soon as you get it home.

by Joshua Engel on Quora.com

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