The four most significant taste factors that provide clues to the aging potential of a wine are the amount of alcohol, acid, fruit and tannin (for red wines) present in the wine.
Once a wine is produced and bottled the aging process begins. Wines age through a series of complex chemical processes, some catalyzed by the presence of oxygen and some catalyzed by various enzymatic changes in the wine’s chemical structure.
When one examines a wine to assess its aging potential one is looking for the presence of either “fuel” for the aging process (fruit and tannin) or preservatives against the aging process (alcohol and acid).
As wines age chemical processes occurring within the wine cause the tannin in a red wine to soften and actually fall out of solution as sediment. Simultaneously the fruit flavors and accompanying body of a wine begin to diminish over time. A wine high in tannin with a strong core of fruit intensity and body will have the ability to age significantly longer than one with little tannin and lighter fruitiness.
While I consider tannin a “fuel” for the aging process, one should also recognize that it is also a natural preservative against oxidation. I consider both acid and alcohol a preservative as well. High alcohol acts to stave off the processes associated with oxidation, hence the reason why wines were previously fortified for long journeys back in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Acid too can act as a preservative, although like tannin, the ability of acid to aid in the aging of wine is due largely to the amount of balancing fruit in the wine. This is especially true for white wines that have little to no tannin present. Wines high in acid but also possessing a strong core of fruit are excellent candidates for aging. Over time as the fruit begins to fade, the acid will act to maintain the structure of the wine allowing the wine to age more gracefully. Be careful, though, because acid does not dissipate in the same way that tannin does, which means that even greater fruitiness is needed to “balance” the effects of the higher acidity. Sweetness also helps to balance acidity.
The keys to examining the taste clues that create a wine’s aging potential are balance and concentration. The four clues: alcohol, acid, fruit and (in red wines) tannin must be balanced and in such concentration to “hold up” to the dissipating processes attributable to aging. Harmonious balance, depth and intensity are all hallmarks of wines with great aging potential.
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