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8. The life of wine

By Ben Greene

If I had to say what it is that I like best about wine it would undoubtedly be the way it changes over time. The best wine has a lifespan similar to our own, made up of stages which blend into one another, as it mellows from its brash youth into harmonious maturity, then begins a slow and graceful decline.

The old ones are the best

Old wine is fascinating. Not only is it a link to the past – the work of a particular person in a particular year in a particular place – but it tells us about that time in the light of its age. It is not the same as when it was first bottled, but its beauty lies in the way it allows us a fleeting glimpse back through the years. Would you rather stand in a ruined Greek temple or a modern reconstruction? The pleasure of an old wine is in its gentle power to evoke the past through its age.

When the time is right

So when it is the right time to drink a particular wine? A lot of it is down to what you like. My colleagues regularly excoriate me for buying and enjoying wine that is ostensibly past it. But some of the best wines I’ve had – and the most pleasant surprises – have been these. Even if the wine is past it, there is usually something of interest there still. But ideally, of course, you catch a wine at just the right moment. This is when everything is in balance. The tannins have softened to produce a pleasant mouthfeel; the intensely fruit-dominated character of its youth has developed into a complex bouquet; the acidity is present but balanced by a sweetness and intensity of flavour and the finish is long.

How do you know when this moment has arrived? So much depends on how the wine has been stored that the same wine from a different source can be found to have aged at a vastly different rate to the bottle under consideration. The best you can do is make an educated guess, bearing in mind the following tips, before deciding to open a special bottle.

  • The vast majority of wine is not designed for long-term ageing and is best drunk up to two years from bottling. There are only a very small group of fine wines that will benefit from longer than that.
  • Generally speaking, the more expensive the wine, the longer it will age and improve. Wines that most definitely do improve with longer ageing are: classed growth Bordeaux, premier and grand cru red Burgundy and other French reds of equivalent quality; Barolo and Barbaresco and Tuscan reds of equivalent quality; the greatest reds from the New World; premier and grand cru white Burgundy; fine German Riesling; Sauternes and other botrytis-affected dessert wines; vintage Port and other similar fortified wines; vintage Champagne.
  • More wine is drunk too old than too young. When a wine goes over the hill, although its decline is slow and steady, the acidity eventually becomes overly pronounced as the fruit fades away, making the wine taste unpleasantly sharp.
  • The size of bottle makes a difference. The larger the format, the slower the ageing process. The same amount of air is present in the neck of a half-bottle, a bottle and a magnum – but with more wine for it to get to work on, the rate of ageing is reduced to the extent that half-bottles deteriorate remarkably quickly, while magnums may take years longer to come around.

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