We all know the drill. Buy a bottle of wine, let it age, sell it at a profit. Or, at least that’s what’s meant to happen. Because all wine gets better with age, right? Erm … no. Fine wine, yes. You’ve probably got a few years left on that 1990 Chateau Margaux you’ve been keeping for a special occasion. But that bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau that you bought last November? Better open it up now, as there’s small chance of that making any profit a couple of years down the line.
Does Wine Get Better With Age?
It’s a rookie mistake to think that all wines get better with age. This is what is fed to us by the industry in the hope of driving up sales of their vin de tables and vin de pays. But the truth is that many non-fine wines actually get worse the older they get. Supermarket wines are put on the shelves for immediate drinking, or keeping for a couple of years max at home. So enjoy them for what they are, not for what you would like them to be.
But back to basics. You have in your possession a banging little Burgundy that you want to either sell or enjoy. How do you know if it’s the right time to part ways?
How long wine can age before it goes bad is largely dependent on the vintage and of course, the winery. Fine wines, any of the crus classes and fortified wines such as Port are relative no-brainers – you can expect an average of 25 years from most (much longer in some cases).
It’s the non-classified wines that are a grey area. Certainly, there are some that will benefit from a good few years in the bottle. But out of the 64,413 different producers classified on wine-searcher.com and the 30 million tonnes of wine produced annually, are you really willing to take a risk without doing a little homework first? No, we thought not. In a nutshell, if you want to make any serious money, you need to concentrate on fine wine only. If you want to use a wine investment app, you have to make sure you know which wines are profitable. Whether or not a wine is age worthy is crucial.
Why Does Wine Get Better With Age?
Investors should note that red wines age better than white. This is largely because of the tannin levels. Tannin, aka nature’s natural preservative, is naturally found in red grapes skins such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sangiovese, cabernet franc, nebbiolo, malbec and syrah and can really make the difference between a 10-15 year drinking window and a 40-plus year one.
Since white wines are fermented without their skins and are generally more acidic. Acid is what determines how long wine can age before it goes bad and thus their ageing ability is far less pronounced. However, there are of course some chateaux that are the exception to the rule and make a product which has a phenomenal ability to age that far surpasses their ruby cousins (Chateau d’Yquem we are looking at you).
Yet, you would be remiss to think that the ideal drinking time is just a few years before peak maturity. How long should wine age is largely a matter of taste. It is not strictly true that all enthusiasts only want to drink a full-bodied red just as the drinking widow is closing. It is a mistake to say that wine – even fine wine – improves towards an apex of perfection, then peters off into vinegar. Wine age improves in the bottle from the moment it is corked, and thus moves along a long-term, ascending slope that offers much to many on its journey. Some enthusiasts may in fact revel in the wine’s youth and vitality, others may prefer middle-age, while a few patient souls might want to wait for the fragility and complexity that comes with a mature wine. The trick of course is getting to know what you prefer.
Investors need not worry about this, but for those of you who want to enjoy their investment in a glass take note. Deciding on your wine palette can take time, so when trying to understand what you like and dislike, we suggest buying at least a half case (six bottles). That way you can taste a bottle every few years and get to know your own fine wine taste preferences.
How Does Wine Age?
This is the question on everyone’s lips, and quite honestly, if it was an exact science we would bottle it ourselves! Wine undergoes complex changes as it ages, unveiling new layers of its character year upon year.
From an external point of view, in order for wine to age correctly it must be correctly managed. This means in a temperature controlled cellar or warehouse, free of external light sources and vibrations. If you don’t actually have one of those in your house (wine fridges are good for storage, but not ideal for long-term ageing), and you are interested in aging your wine optimally, you should seriously consider using a professional storage company, such as J.F. Hillebrand.
What happens when wine ages in the bottle is simply magic. Over time, textures and flavors appear (for more info on wine flavors, see our detailed guide), and much like ourselves, what was once bold and young becomes mellow and subdued. This alchemy means that the secondary flavors are brought to the front of the palette, adding balance, character and, we hope, quality. As the tannins and acids mature and dissolve, the chemical reaction of the yeast consuming the sugar creates stereoisomers, or isomeric molecules that have the same atomic breakdown as something else – hence why wine is sometimes considered buttery, having tobacco undertones or tasting like liquorice roots. You can learn more about that in our wine flavours guide.
This chemical reaction is in continual evolution, hence the transformative arc we mentioned earlier. While the proportion of alcohol, acids and sugars stay the same, the flavors continue to develop, offering a different taste experience according to where you find yourself on that arc. It would appear that in wine, such as in life, the only constant thing is change.
How Long Can Wine Age? Which Wines get better with age?
Well, it might be easier to ask how long is a piece of string. There is simply no one size fits all answer here, and, like much of your wine investment journey, educating yourself is key. Some of the great reds from Barolo in Italy’s Piemonte, or from France’s Bordeaux or Burgundy regions offer superb aging potential, especially if the stars have aligned and you are looking at an above average vintage. These tannin heavy wines mellow and reach their peak at least 15-20 years after they have been bottled – much, much longer in some cases. Some of the very great Bordeauxs have a drinking window of 100 years, proving our point that there is no hard and fast rule for how long should wine age for. Bordeaux blends can benefit from a good decade of cellaring, while fragrant reds such as your non-Burgundy pinots (ie Californian or other new world) only have a shelf life of 3-5 years. The exceptions here of course are Burgundy heavyweights such as Domaine de la Romanee Conte and Maison Leroy. If you invest in a case from either of these estates, chances are the pinot will outlive you rather than vice versa.
Unless you have a superb white from one of the great chateaux, we would advise steering clear of any white that is over say 10-15 years. The exception here of course being Champagne.
How to Use Wine Ageability in Wine Investment?
All this brings us to how to best use that ageability to your advantage. As fine wine is produced in finite quantities, there is no option of going back to make more if it’s been a fantastic year. Unlike a great book or a limited edition pair of shoes that goes mainstream, you can;t simply go back and just make more of the exact same wine. Whether the chateau has made 2,000 or 200,000 bottles the fact remains that once it’s gone, it’s gone. The simple maths is that as the wine gets older, there are less examples on the market. Bottles will have been drunk, cases will have been sold or lost and, in time, demand will begin to outsrip supply. This is where you and your aforementioned case of 1990 Margaux come in. If you have cellared correctly, feel that it is the right time to sell and the market is amiable, then you can swoop in and clean up. Or to put it even more simply: older wine tastes better, there’s less of it and costs more. And you don’t even need a degree in economics to understand that.
Ageability is only one of hundreds of wine-related terms. Get familiar with the most important ones in our wine tasting terms dictionary.
When to Sell Your Wine?
There is the fear when investing in fine wine that you might miss the ideal window of opportunity. Did I wait too long? Has it passed its sell by date? What if there’s a few more years left? Should I have waited longer? Did I pay too much initially? Will I definitely see a return on my investment? We’re here to tell you that these fears, be it in regards to selling or drinking are unfounded. Whatever the reason you want to sell your wine collection, it will always be the right time as it’s what you want. And if you go about it in the right way, it’s hard to make a mistake. Vindome offers some great advice on how to sell your wine, so if you need a little guidance, don’t hesitate to read further around the subject. Cheers!
If you’re interested in wine investment now, you may want to check out our full guide on how to invest in wine.