10 Year Challenge: What “Aging Like a Fine Wine” Really Means

Remember the 10-Year Challenge on social media? What a marvelous/horrifying chance to marvel at the transformative effects of time!

Nowhere is that impact more evident than in wine — the vintages that went into the bottle back in 2009 have certainly evolved. In honor of that viral moment, we thought we’d spotlight exactly how aging wine works, and why you should give it a try.

In the Barrel

When oenophiles talk about aging, they are usually talking about bottle-aging, but there is another part of the process: Most wines spend some time in either steel tanks or oak barrels before hitting the glass. For white wines, that can be as little as three-to-six months; for red wines, 12-to-36 months in barrels is more typical.

“During this time, the barrels are doing three main things,” explains Gary Toczko, the winemaker at Nimble Hill Vineyard & Winery, a northeastern PA operation famous for its award-winning white wines. “They impart flavors of vanilla, smoke, hazelnut, and cloves; they allow minimal amounts of oxygen into the wine; and they give the wine a suitable environment to undergo malolactic fermentation, if desired.”

At Pinnacle Ridge Winery in the Lehigh Valley, winemaker Brad Knapp bottles his European-style red wines within the first two years of life.

“If you’re in the barrel for more than a couple of years, you run the risk of the wines getting a little dried out,” he says. “You get a little too much oak tannin, and oak tannin is harsh. You lose the fruit. This is largely about oxygen — you get more air through the wood than you would through the cork in a bottle, so it ages too fast.”

In the Bottle

Now comes the fun part. Or, more accurately, the part requiring time, patience, and delayed gratification.

Put your carefully selected bottles somewhere cool and dark.

Then wait.

See? Fun!

“The wine needs to be good to start,” explains Knapp. “When it’s young, it’s going to be purple. It’s going to stain your teeth. It’s going to be fruity and a little on the harsh side. The tannins will be more aggressive. The flavors will be primary fruit flavors: currants, blackberry, things along that line.”

“As it ages, you’ll see a color shift from purple moving into ruby red,” he continues. “Then you’ll start seeing brick and some orange-brownish hues. At the same time, the flavors will move from primary fruit flavors to more forest floor — kind of like rotting leaves, but in a good way. The aromas are just different. They become more vegetal. The tannins will soften. They’ll become a little rounder in the mouth and more pleasant to drink.”

The changes are slightly different for white wines. They will actually gain color, going from almost clear or slightly yellow to a deeper straw or golden appearance. Like reds, when white wines are young, they tend to be more fruit forward. As they age, the fruit and floral flavors take a back seat to more savory characteristics such as butter, cream, and nuts.

“White wines can be aged just like red wines if they are stored correctly,” explains Toczko. “One variety that does tend to age quite well is Riesling due to its high acid levels. Champagne and other sparkling wines also age well due to their acidity.”

It’s important to note here that not all wines benefit from aging. For example, if you are looking for bright aromas and vibrant fruit flavors, fresher is better. Wines ideal for aging are typically highly tannic and intense; red wines tend to be more tannic due to their contact with the grape skins during fermentation and longer time in oak, which means they are more likely to do well over the long haul.

Knapp encourages customers to age certain red wines at home — they simply don’t have enough space to do it on-site at the winery — but it can be a tough sell. Currently, the oldest wine Pinnacle Ridge sells is their 2015 Veritas, a classic Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. According to Knapp, it peaks around eight years.

“The hardest part about aging red wines is that you have to buy more wine than you drink,” he says. “If you want to age 10 years worth of wine, you need to buy 10 years worth of wine ahead of time.”

Knapp has found that Pinnacle Ridge’s Chambourcin, a hybrid they’ve grown since 1993, also ages extremely well. Despite the fact that these wines don’t have much tannin, the high acidity means that they still taste great after 10 to 15 years.

But don’t wait too long. If you over-age a wine (or store it incorrectly), the colors will fade, the tannins will soften out of existence, and the flavor will lose intensity.

At Nimble Hill, the majority of their wines are meant to be consumed within five years, but that doesn’t mean that even a few years in the bottle can’t have a big impact. Toczko recently opened bottles of their 2015 Toczko Vineyard Riesling and 2015 Dry Riesling.

“We were pleasantly surprised at the transformation that the wine has undergone in the past three years,” he says. “We compared them to the newer vintages — the 2017 Toczko Vineyard Riesling and 2017 Dry Riesling — and were reminded of what those 2015 wines were like after bottling: full of bright acidity, with flavors of nectarine and peach, and aromas of lime. The fruit characteristics are still there but are slightly masked by minerality and notes of petrol. I look forward to trying these again in six months to see if they are still evolving in the bottle.”

Waiting Game

By now you should be convinced to put a couple special bottles away for a few years. No cellar, no problem: Just keep them out of the heat and away from sunlight. And stay strong.

“It’s a challenge,” says Knapp. “You can just imagine: You get into a winter storm, you forgot to buy wine and it’s down there in the cellar. You’re having a nice meal, and boom there it goes. You just have to buy more than you drink. That’s the only way it works.”

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