How long do I need to wait before I drink a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? What about a California Chardonnay?

How long do I need to wait before I drink a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? What about a California Chardonnay?

Great news!

You don’t need to wait at all because it is an urban myth that fine wines always "improve with age". There was more truth to this rule of thumb fifty years ago, but the global fine wine revolution that began in the 1970s has radically changed how wines are made and how people prefer to enjoy them.

Today, the vast majority of wines are already at their peak when released for sale and this includes top-tier bottlings. This is even more likely to be the case if the wine is made in a “New World” region outside of Europe, like California. The only exceptions would be found in that rare realm of wines retailing for over $75 a bottle or so.

WHAT HAS CHANGED TO MAKE WINES READY TO DRINK SOONER?

Historically, most fine wines used to be made from grapes picked at lower degrees of ripeness than today’s norm. This produced wines that were lower in alcohol and higher in acidity. Among red wines in particular, the wines often had very high levels of “green” tannins. In centuries past, higher quality wines with these traits needed patient aging in barrels AND additional aging in bottles to reach a pleasant and harmonious flavor balance.

Nowadays, advances in both grape growing and winemaking methodology combined with the modern wine market’s preference for immediate gratification has made this pattern a thing of the past, largely invalidating what used to be a reliable rule of thumb. Affordable wines have always been ready to drink young in every era, and don’t keep well beyond a year or so either.

HOW DO WINES CHANGE IN FLAVOR WITH AGE, AND WHY ARE EXPENSIVE WINES THE ONLY ONES THAT IMPROVE?

All wines fade slowly in flavor over time, losing their “primary” fruity aromas. In order to improve with time, a wine must acquire enough additional layers of aromatic complexity to offset the inevitable loss of flavor that occurs. Only high-quality wines are concentrated enough in their flavor compounds for them to combine and react with each other during the aging process. This is how wines gain new flavors and scents with age, known separately as wine’s “bouquet” or “tertiary” smells, which tend to be nuttier or earthier, often more tea-like than they are reminiscent of fresh fruit.

The more flavor compounds, such as acids, phenolics and esters, that are present in a wine at bottling, the more potential there is for chemical reactions between them that create bouquet. Thick-skinned grapes with the lowest water content tend to produce the most concentrated wines. Therefore, the greatest likelihood of gaining flavor interest with maturity is found in wines made from high-flavor grape varieties with little rain or irrigation during the growing season – in short, wines of high quality. As a result, the more expensive a wine, the more likely it is to reward patient cellaring. 

It is important to remember, though, that while older wines can have great food-pairing abilities, they are not always as well suited for instant gratification without food. In fact, few modern-day wine drinkers prefer the understatement of maturity over the vibrancy of youth. The complexity of older wines is an acquired taste that many American wine drinkers never develop, despite being widespread in Europe.

Marnie Old

Author and sommelier Marnie Old is one of the country’s leading wine experts and serves as director of vinlightenment for Boisset Collection, one of the world’s leading family-owned fine wine firms based in Burgundy and Napa Valley. Formerly the director of wine studies for Manhattan’s esteemed French Culinary Institute, she is best known for her visually engaging books – the award-winning Wine: A Tasting Course and most recently, Passion for Wine, co-authored with Jean-Charles Boisset. Read more about Marnie Old