The flavor, color, and aroma of every bottle of wine are influenced by a large number of factors that result in a unique final product. Hundreds of chemical compounds within a bottle of wine can react with one another to create changes in the makeup of the wine.
These reactions tend to improve the taste over time, but these changes are not always predictable since each crop of grapes is different. The method of fermentation that the grapes undergo, in addition to the region and year of a specific grape varietal, will determine the best time to uncork the wine. A balanced approach paired with controlled storage conditions are key elements in crafting finely aged wine.
The process of winemaking that is utilized today has been developed over thousands of years. In ancient Rome, the practice of partially drying the grapes before fermenting them was used to concentrate the sugars, which allowed the wine to be aged for years. Wines were aged in clay amphorae and sealed with wax or resin in addition to a cork if it was available. Wine was usually stored underground in such places as underground catacombs, cemeteries, wine caves, underneath floors, and wine cellars.
The use of corked bottles to house wine was a 17th-century development and allowed for a more effective aging process. The combination of air-resistant glass and a cork that permitted small amounts of air to enter the bottle helped the wine age over a period of years. This enhanced the appreciation for aged wine, which continues today.
The benefit of centuries of winemaking has equipped us with many methods of maturing and aging wine. Although some vintners use age-old techniques to craft their wine, others employ the benefit of technology to achieve a more balanced result. Some of the most common vessels that are used today to hold wine while it matures are oak barrels, stainless steel containers, and glass carboys.
♦ The use of French and American oak barrels for aging wine is one of the most popular and widespread methods.
♦ Barrel-aging can result in woody aromas and a sweet, creamy character in the wines they house.
♦ The wood and wine age together and oak flavor seeps into the liquid over time.
♦ This airtight container never degrades and is impermeable to light.
♦ The containers can be fitted with oak planks and then filled with wine.
♦ The chief issue with aging wine in stainless steel is the lack of oxygen exchange, which can result in muted flavors.
♦ These containers are typically used to store small amounts of wine.
♦ They are more fragile than wood or stainless steel and do not keep light out.
♦ There is the benefit of being able to see the color change in the wine as it ages.
The wine cellars of today, like those of the past, are underground, but they are also much more high-tech than ancient cellars. Thousands of dollars can easily go toward building a wine cellar that provides the perfect temperature, humidity, and exposure to light.
Wine that is aged to excellence will produce a product that contains balanced fruit, fermentation, and aging flavors. The length of time it takes to achieve this will vary on the wine itself and the conditions it is stored in. The culmination of these processes and time are all necessary to bring the wine to its flavorful peak.