Matured or aged wines are generally considered to be particularly fine and are, as such, highly sought-after; however, not every wine has the potential to improve in quality during the ageing process. Liebherr’s Master Sommelier Frank Kämmer explains the mysteries of wine maturation.
Wine is an unusual food product in that it can sometimes have considerable durability in terms of its storage life. Although it only contains a few milligrams of sulphite to preserve it from oxidation, it sometimes appears as if wine has the miraculous ability to hold back time itself, and even last for centuries! But, by and large, the legends that abound extolling the qualities of very old wines should not to be taken at face value. It’s unfortunate but true that, whosoever clings wholeheartedly to the adage: “the older the better” is most likely going to have to face some drastic disappointments when they open up and sample some of their senior citizen wines!
Wine maturation: the type of wine is key
When it comes down to it, there are only a few exceptional vines that have the potential to produce grapes with juices that possess truly dignified, Methuselah-like maturing qualities. Essentially, wines can be roughly divided into three categories: those which lose quality with storage, those which can maintain their quality over a specific time period, and finally, those that really do improve when stored in the cellar for years. The first group – and this is the largest by far – is home to the simple table wines that we consume on an everyday basis. These are quite intentionally produced to taste at their best when purchased, and therefore they should never bought in any great quantity with the intention of laying them down.
In contrast, higher quality wines, depending on their origin and type, may well be suited to cellaring for quite some time. However you must understand that, in the course of the maturing process, the character of these wines will change, but this will not always equate to a positive change or any noticeable improvement in a wine’s quality. And, this also holds true for the third category of wines, the really fine wines. Of course, by their nature, these wines are often an obvious exception as they really do have the potential to improve and gain refinement within the bottle as the years pass. Yet never fall into the assumption that favourable maturing and development will always follow as a matter of course, even for top quality wines.
Wine does not keep forever
Every great wine, even the most enduring great wine, has a highly individualised lifecycle that follows the path of an ascending and then descending curve, rather than the path of a line that increases linearly. In terms of its development, after a period of refinement, a great wine will eventually reach a plateau of maximum quality; and a good vintage will often maintain this quality over many years. But, in the end, even the finest juice of the vine will follow the destiny of all mortal things: it will leave its plateau of peak maturity and begin a (hopefully) slow and gentle descent. Fine wines which are in decline from their zenith quality can be, of course, still very good to drink. A certain amount of respect and humility is required in order to take real pleasure in the consumption of a particularly old wine that is in the latter stages of its quality phase.
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