Guide to Aging Wine: How Do Wines Age?
A question you may hear bouncing around in wine bars, wine shops, or wine tastings is – how was this wine aged? Now, there are a few different ways to answer this question, as aging isn’t just one specific process. Winemakers and consumers both play a role in aging wine. Knowing the wine aging process is key to how to pick a wine that suits you best!
Aging Wine Before Bottling
There is an important step that happens after grape juice ferments and transforms into wine. This is the aging process. Now, sometimes wines don’t even go to aging. A perfect example is rosé. Typically, winemakers will not age rosé as they want to preserve the fresh and fruity primary aromas that come from fermentation. Winemakers can also decide to omit the aging process for white and red wines as well.
On the other hand, many wines do undergo a form of aging before they make it to bottling. Let’s discover all the wine aging techniques winemakers use!
This is perhaps an aging term most know best. Many wines undergo barrel aging, a process that imparts specific aromas, flavors, and textures that tons of wine drinkers truly adore.
Red and white wines can both undergo barrel aging. But, it is most commonly used for red wines, and this is for a couple of reasons…
First off, every red wine undergoes a fascinating thing called malolactic fermentation (MLF.) This is what makes red wine taste more soft and plush, rather than tart. During MLF, malic acid in the wine is converted to lactic acid (yes, an acid you find in dairy products.) Ok, now don’t worry – wine is safe for those with dairy allergies. MLF is only a small ‘secondary’ fermentation just makes a red wine a little more pleasant to drink!
So, what does this all have to do with barrels? Well, if a winemaker uses a barrel that was previously used for MLF, the bacteria on the barrels will help jumpstart the MLF in the wine.
Another big reason for barrel aging, if not the biggest, is to soften the tannins red wines. Tannins are those mouth-drying, almost astringent components that you find in many red wines. By slowly aging wine in oak barrels, chemical reactions with the wood will allow these tannins to start to chill out.
Wine Barrel Types Matter!
No matter the reason for the aging, the type of wine barrel matters. Many winemakers opt to use new barrels, which add more bold, spice flavors to the wine. Some winemakers prefer to use older barrels (known as ‘neutral oak’ in the wine world.) These barrels don’t impart intense oak flavor to the wine. Instead, neutral oak solely helps boost the texture of the wine.
White wines can also age in barrels. Chardonnay is the most common white when aged in barrel. The creaminess and butteriness many love about Chardonnay comes from MLF. Now, there’s a wine fact you can share with friends!
This is the most preferred aging method for white wines. Stainless steel is great at staying cool. Cooler temperatures help to preserve fresh flavors and aromas during and after the fermentation process. Many winemakers prefer to leave their wines in stainless for aging, as they aren’t looking to add any oak character to their wines.
Of course, stainless is a preferred pick for white wines, as the goal with certain white wines is to showcase freshness and acidity. Yet, as we know with anything in our world, nothing is black and white. Some white wines do wonders in oak and some red wines excel in stainless steel.
In stainless, wines don’t just stay still. Winemakers can still have some fun. Many choose to leave fine lees inside the wine to boost texture, as they would in the barrel. Fine less is the leftover little yeast particles from fermentation. These little guys lend more nutty, creamy, and bold flavors to a wine. Most winemakers will filter out the lees before bottling. However, now more than ever in the past, winemakers are leaving wines unfiltered, resulting in some very interesting wines.
Ever heard of a concrete egg? Yes, it is a real thing. Concrete aging is definitely a newer wine trend, one that offers great benefits. Concrete wine aging has a unique ability to mildly oxygenate the wine as a barrel does, while not imposing any oak character. This is why winemakers love concrete – it gives them all the basic perks of aging in a barrel, without having to deal with barrels at all.
It isn’t as easy to guess that wine is aged in concrete as it is aged in a barrel. Knowledge like that will take a lot of time (and wine drinking!)
Aging Wine in Bottle
Winemakers will sometimes choose to bottle age certain wines before release. In fact, there are wines that must be bottle-aged by law. Brunello di Montalcino, a delicious Italian wine made from Sangiovese, is required to age at least 4 months in a bottle to be called Brunello di Montalcino!
Bottle aging is another method of improving a wine’s texture. Something incredibly cool happens with a wine’s tannins in the bottle. They attach to each other, forming literal chains that decrease their intensity. This helps to create a more velvety wine in the bottle. Also, bottle aging exposes wine to a little more oxygen, which can lend a little more complexity too.
So, we got the wine aging techniques on the winemakers’ side squared away. But, consumers do have a hand in how a wine ages in a bottle. Certain bottles you pick up at the store can chill out and relax for years after purchase, especially when stored correctly. But, how do you know which bottles to store?
Now, that’s a post for another time. Stay tuned!
Have any questions about winemaking or aging techniques? Never hesitate to send us a DM on social, contact us via email, or come visit us at our tasting room. We’d love to chat all about wine with you!