Does the age of a wine matter as much now as it did fifty years ago? Certainly the modern winemaker has infinitely more control over the final product than his or her predecessors would ever have thought possible. A poor vintage may never be completely redeemed, but it is now rarely the potential disaster of years gone by. Certainly at the level of supermarket offerings, what is required from producers is both volume and consistency, with the ability to age very much of secondary importance. The saddest thing is when ordinary wines have simply been kept much too long, age being unable to confer qualities that were lacking from the start. However, wine is always in a state of change, be it in the cask or in the bottle, so when is it best to drink it?
In order for a wine to improve with age it will need to have had significant fruit when it was made, so this often means it will have been sold at a higher price point upon release. As the fruit fades the naturally preserving tannins mellow and the wine’s bouquet develops, so the perfect time to drink will be when these three factors are all in balance. It’s not a perfect science, and even the experts frequently get it wrong, with some wines tasting delicious long after they were supposed to be past their best.
In my opinion the safest wines for long ageing remain the traditional leading Bordeaux reds, and, of course, vintage port. Other wines that benefit from bottle age are the more tannic Italians such as Barolo and Chianti, though many white wines can also develop marvellously in bottle, such as Sauternes, German Rieslings, and Tokay. Experimenting outside these boundaries can however reveal some delightful surprises!