Best by 2027: How to Know if Your Wine Gets Better With Age

As if buying the “right” wine wasn’t challenging enough, wine marketers are starting to focus on yet another indefinable wrinkle -- timing.  At the end of the ubiquitous tasting note, there is a “drink window”, for instance 2018 through 2027.  This window of time, often broad, is when the wine will supposedly be at its peak.  These hard numbers give the impression that before the drink window begins, the wine will not be ready, afterwards, poof, it will be too late to enjoy.  

This is diabolically clever.  What other industry can sell their product now, reap the profit immediately, and then convince the consumer to bear the costs of storing the product for years.  Not only that, but if the consumer gives in to temptation and drinks the wine when it is “too young,” the implication is that the underwhelming experience cannot be the fault of the wine, but with the consumer’s own impatience.  If, on the other hand, the consumer  arrives at that advised drink window and opens the bottle, those long years of expectation may be too much for the wine to bear.  After all, that time didn’t transform this wine into something else, just made it older!

The fact is, with modern winemaking, the vast majority of wine --over 90%-- is not meant to be aged and will only get worse with time.  And, notwithstanding a lot of claims to the contrary, price alone is no indication that a wine will age well.  Even those bottles that reach north of $100 may not have what it takes to develop well over the course of decades.  Wines that focus on fruit and freshness deliver enjoyment right away without any need for bottle aging.  To use a flower as an analogy, these wines are like snapdragons.  They are pretty, fun, complex in their own way, but are really just one petal.  Once they have bloomed, there is no metamorphosis or development.  They simply wither and fall off.

Wines that need aging, when drank too “young,” do not evoke bowls of fresh, delicious fruit, but often taste...confusing.  They are full of flavor, but nothing stands out.  The overwhelming sensation may be a textural one of “tightness,” where it seems like there should be more flavors than there actually are.  This young wine has most of its aroma compacted into a small portion of the olfactory spectrum; only with time can these compounds evolve and unravel into something far more interesting.  Tasting the same wine years later will reveal smells that weren’t there initially, and the nose will begin to tease out distinct smells creating a richer experience.  This kind of wine, like a newly-budded rose, rewards the patient.  Each petal slowly unfurls, revealing more and more of the bloom.

What’s more, the “peak” of even these age-worthy wines is subjective.  There is something to appreciate at every phase of maturation, from the bud through the bloom, as the petals begin to fall and even as the rose dries and withers.  Some rules of thumb that I, flexibly, use for types of wine that benefit from aging are: high-end reds and whites from Burgundy -- 5-8 years; quality Napa Cabernet -- 5-10+ years; Riesling -- 10+ years; good Bordeaux and Barolo -- 10-20+ years; great Port or Sauternes -- almost timeless.  While everyone’s feeling about the perfect time to drink a wine is different, rest assured, there should never be a time when a good wine is truly unenjoyable.  The real timing that determines when a wine is at its peak coincides with good people and a happy occasion, not the dates of a “drink window.”