Maturing Wine

Wine has many components (natural chemicals) which interact to produce its complex taste and smell. As a wine is stored, these components gradually break down and reform into different chemicals. This is known as a wine aging (or more politely, maturing), and it occurs in all wines.

The traditional approach to wine making takes advantage of this aging process. Wine grapes are grown, harvested and fermented in a way that the resulting wine has a very concentrated level of the various natural chemicals. The wine is then stored for a number of years, during which time some but not all of each of the original taste elements break down and form new chemicals. After this storage period the wine still has all the different types of original taste elements but the quantity of each has been reduced, and it has in addition a large number of new taste elements. When done well, this results in a wine of amazing complexity, with many layers of different tastes and smells.

Since the original taste elements break down over time, the wine must begin with too much of each (too much acid, too much tannin, and so on). Consequently, if the wine is drunk young, the taste is far too strong and is quite unpleasant. Furthermore, the different elements  break down at different rates, so they must be out of balance to begin with in order to be in balance at the end. This adds further to the unpleasant taste of a wine drunk too young.

Although the older wine producing countries support this approach, the newer wine producers (e.g. America, Australia, New Zealand) produce wines in such a way that they do not require aging. They use wine production techniques which aim to have the various natural taste elements in the appropriate quantities and in balance almost as soon as the wine has finished fermenting (or perhaps after a relatively short period in an oak barrel).

The newer approach has several advantages over the traditional method. The first is that to produce grapes with very high levels of taste ingredients, one needs mature grape vines and must restrict the amount of production per vine (or per acre) so that the ingredients produced by the vine are concentrated into a relatively small number of grapes. The newer approach does not have these two requirements, so producers save the costs associated with maturing vines and limiting grape production. The second advantage is that less expertise and experience is required; it is easier for the wine-maker to evaluate and mix grapes to achieve a balance now than it is to evaluate and mix them in such a way that it will be balance after years of aging. The third and perhaps biggest advantage is that there is no need to store it for years; it goes straight from the producer to the merchant to your table, saving both cost and inconvenience.

The French are only slowly converting to the newer method, although they recognise that it produces wines for less cost and greater convenience. They rightfully point out that a wine produced this way will never benefit from aging, it starts out with only enough of the various taste elements, so in storage it will only become weak and unbalanced. They also observe, again correctly, that the great complexity of taste and aroma that can be achieved using the traditional maturing process is unavailable with the new approach. One can produce a very good wine with the modern approach, but not a great one.

The bottom line is that if one buys a New World wine it can likely be drunk immediately and in fact should not be stored for years, whereas if one buys a French wine it will probably need to be stored for some years. One can buy French wines that have already been stored for years before being sold, but that doesn't mean that they don't need further years before they are ready to be drunk. Unfortunately, the French rarely put an indication on their label of when the wine will be ready to drink, either assuming that the buyer should know or taking it as a matter of personal taste. However, if you buy direct from the producer or a good wine merchant, they should be able to give an indication of how much maturing is required. This is usually given as a range, for example: drinkable in 2 years, at its best in 4 to 6 years, can keep up to 8 years. Some of the supermarkets selling wine are now also providing this information.

The very best wines made in the traditional method are the most expensive to produce and are in the greatest demand, and consequently are the most expensive even when they have years of maturity in front of them. Therefore, if you are buying a bottle for a special occasion, be wary of buying the most expensive bottle in the store as it may need years more before being ready. A less expensive bottle is more likely to be ready to drink and give more pleasure if you intend to drink immediately.

If you have the space and patience, storing wine can be very sensible. A wine which is bought young and stored will cost less than to purchase the same wine once it is matured. It can also give a lot of pleasure in anticipation (each time you look in your wine cellar, you will see bottles growing in both taste and value) and when opened has a sense of occasion about it. Imagine the romance when opening a bottle at a dinner party when you mention how long you've been saving it and remember where and when you bought it. Picking up a bottle at the local supermarket the day before isn't quite the same thing.

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