It’s a common adage that wine improves with age. But is that true? Well, like most things, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Some wines are made and intended to be consumed quickly. Almost any white wine; any slightly effervescent wines (e.g. albariño, pétillant naturel, vinho verde, etc.); and some fresh, light-bodied red wines such as beaujolais nouveau or grenache will go bad fairly quickly. They’re meant to be enjoyed the same year they’re released. Only the most full-bodied chardonnay wines will improve with age.
However, the more complex and structured a wine is, the more it will change and evolve over time. More simplistically, the more “stuff” there is in the components of the wine, the better it will mature.
What “stuff” are we talking about? First and foremost, is tannin. Tannins are acids present in the skins and stems of grapes, and to a lesser extent, in the wood of oak barrels. When the grape skins and stems are left in contact with the juice after pressing, they impart the color of the skins, along with additional flavor/scent compounds known as polyphenols, and tannins, to the final product. Wine aged in oak barrels may pick up some additional tannic aspects.
Tannin tastes somewhat bitter, and it’s an astringent. That means that it makes the inside of your mouth feel dried out. And it also means that it has antiseptic qualities. Tannins kill bacteria; bacteria that would feed on and break down the wine into vinegar over time. So, a wine with a significant tannin component will last longer.
Some big, bold, full-bodied red wines with a tannic backbone also have other stuff going on. They may have a sharp, acidic bite. The alcohol content will be higher: in the range of 12% by volume. They have harsh, in-your-face flavors, and disconcerting aromas of metal, earth, leather, etc. These wines are not meant to be: 1) consumed by themselves. They’re intended to be paired with foods, like steak, cheese, or stew; nor 2) consumed fresh and new.
At the very least, these complex, highly structured, full-bodied wines will benefit from some aeration. Pouring the bottle into a decanter and letting it get some air contact will mellow everything out. The oxygen in the air will combine with the complex chemicals in the wine and the resultant oxidation will release some of the more interesting and enjoyable flavors locked away under the acid, alcohol, and tannin, and will mellow out the sharp edges. The heavier and bolder the wine, the longer the decanting can be; thirty to sixty minutes should do the trick.
But take the same wine, and stow it away for a few years, in a cool, dark place. Then, try it again and discover a whole different experience. Smooth, mature, with all of the different aspects integrated together. That’s the wonder of aging a fine wine.
It might take some experimentation to find when a wine is suited to aging in your wine cooler, cellar, pantry bottom, hidden bookshelf, etc. But a good indication is when you go to a winery and taste a cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, zinfandel, etc., that is just overpowering and harsh, consider: does it have a good starting base of tannin, acid, and alcoholic bite? If so, set it aside for ten minutes. Try it again. Does it seem a little more enjoyable? Perhaps, you should consider an investment of time, buy a bottle, and come back to it in one, two, or four years. You might be rewarded for your patience and judgement. (And remember, always store wine bottles long-term horizontally; the wine will stay in contact with the cork and prevent it from drying out.)
Otherwise, if you find yourself enjoying the wine right now, then enjoy the wine right now. Simple, un-oaked, fresh, smooth wines that can be drunk right now, should be drunk right now.
Finally, remember that saving a wine for a “special occasion” misses the point. Enjoying a good wine with good company and good food, is always a special occasion.