What do old wines taste like? And… the question we’re all wondering: are old wines better than young wines? Learn how wines age by observing a single wine (a Merlot) produced for nearly 30 years from the same vineyard by the same winery. What you’ll discover might surprise you, it certainly surprised us.
How Wines Age
We’ve all heard “the older, the better” when it comes to wine, but is this really true?
In reality, there aren’t that many wines built to last (maybe only 3% of the market). Also, these collector wines don’t usually taste great when they’re first released. They’ll often have wine descriptions like “closed,” “tight,” “austere,” “grippy” or “hold” and even sometimes get tagged with a lower rating. This is because the wine hasn’t aged enough to open up to its full potential.
How color changes with age
As wines age we observe the red color (anthocyanin) changing from more deeper ruby and violet hues to paler red and orange colors. Merlot is actually one of those varieties that’s famous for going orange faster than other red wines (like Cabernet Sauvignon). If you wait long enough, the red pigment will eventually become a dull translucent brown color (like a browned apple).
We were surprised when we opened the nearly 30 year old bottle of Merlot to see that, although the color had changed, the wine was still quite opaque in color. It even looked more opaque in the center than the most youthful vintage. We suspect that this may have to do with the lower alcohol level in this wine (listed at 12.9% vs. 14.5%) since alcohol is known to dissolve the color. There’s also the possibility that the wine was produced with less sulfur (although we don’t have any proof of this), but sulfur dioxide–sulfites,–bleach anthocyanin as well.
How taste changes with age
Wine ages in a sort of bell curve that can be stretched out to peak several decades after it’s made.
As wines age we observe the structural characteristics of acidity and tannin begin to fade. Beyond this, most experienced tasters describe older wines as having more dried or stewed fruit and spice characteristics from slow oxidation.
When tasting the 1999 and the 1987 vintages, we did note a clear drop in acidity and tannin in the wine as well as fruit characteristics changing from fresh and tart fruits to more dried or stewed fruits. The interesting thing was that, over time, the fruit flavors in the wine seemed to open up and become more bold. This was unexpected given that the young wines didn’t seem to have very much fruit to begin with and the fruit flavors were generally a bit tart.