One of the first rules wine enthusiasts are taught, is never to store wine in the kitchen. The temperature not only fluctuates, but when the area heats up, it can become intensely hot. Extreme heat can literally cook a wine, which is why some present-day North American wineries avoid making direct-to-consumer deliveries during the peak of summer. They wait till autumn.
Yet in ancient Rome a smoke chamber (known as a fumarium) built atop a heated hearth, could sometimes be used to enhance wine flavour. Amphorae (earthenware vessels) would be placed in these chambers to impart a smokiness to the wine, a process that also seemed to sharpen its acidity.
More affluent Romans would have a room just for storing wine. The cella vinaria was located on the ground floor. Even though it might have been removed from the heat of the kitchen, it was not protected from extreme changes in temperature.
Long before the Roman times, around 6 000 BCE, the people living in what is now Georgia, Eastern Europe, were storing their wine in earthenware vessels lined with beeswax (qvevri as we know them today). They were firmly sealed and buried underground, where temperatures would remain more constant than above ground. Usually after about two years they would be dug up for drinking.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages, when wines in Europe were often stored in the cool, dark stone cellars of monasteries and castles. This happened almost by default. As heavy stone structures could literally shift under their own weight, they were built over arches so they wouldn’t topple over. In time, the spaces below the arches proved useful for storing wine.
It was the French, however, who were the first to think of creating actual ageing spaces for their wines, repurposing old mining caves during the 1600s. The practice became more widespread as glass bottles for storing wine gained in popularity, also during the 17th century.
For a long time it was thought that all wines benefitted from ageing but not so today. Currently, most wine is bought for almost immediate consumption. If not within the first 24 hours, certainly soon after. So why then do we bother with ageing?
Patience can be very rewarding. Obviously, not all wines are equal, and not all wines are suited to ageing. Grape variety and wine style will have a huge impact on a wine’s maturation potential.
When a wine is worth maturing though, as it ages its primary, more obvious fruit flavours recede, and secondary, more layered, often more subtle, and increasingly complex characters emerge. That’s assuming it has been stored under optimal conditions (cool, dark and at constant temperatures). The cooler the conditions, the slower the rate of maturation will be.
Wines that age well are underpinned by structure. Think of a face. A person who is said to age well (in looks, a least) has a skin tautness, supported by good bone structure. The same can be said for wines.
Some factors that lend structure are acid level (the lower the pH, generally, the better the capacity of a wine to age), very high sugar levels (found in dessert and fortified wines) and the presence of tannins that give the wine its backbone, its texture and balance. Wine tannins are derived from grape skins, seeds, and stems, as well as from oak vats.
Tannins are naturally occurring molecules known as polyphenols. They add bitterness and astringency, but also complexity. As a wine ages, the tannins polymerise, creating long chains with each other that soften wine texture.
The impact of oxygen also plays an important role in wine ageing. There can be exposure to oxygen during various winemaking processes and, also after a wine has been bottled and closed under cork.
Wines under cork in larger bottles like 1,5 litre magnums and bigger, age slower than wines in smaller-format containers where there is a greater proportion of liquid exposed to oxygen.
But how long should such a wine age? As with most things, it depends. We always think that maturation applies to red wines only but that isn’t true. There are some whites with the necessary structure to age for decades. Riesling is an obvious example, but there are some Chardonnays, Chenin Blancs, Sauvignon Blancs, Semillon and blends which can be laid down for years.
White wines have tannins too but because in most cases they are not fermented on the skins, their tannins are not as overt. Fermenting and ageing in wood can impart tannins to whites.
Our business is to identify all wines that have the potential to benefit from ageing. These are stored under the right conditions, and we taste and evaluate them regularly to determine their ideal maturation window.
Some of the wines we offer can be bought now for further laying down, but others are reaching their peak and should best be enjoyed while in their prime.
If you have any questions we can answer, we’d be happy to help.
The Vinoteque team