How to Age Wine: Your Wine Aging Guide

The science of how to age wine is a complex interplay of chemistry, microbiology, and environmental conditions.  

Many factors will impact the aroma, taste, color, and mouthfeel of wine, including the grape and vintage, the container used for aging (oak barrels vs. stainless steel tanks), exposure to oxygen, and so much more.

Wine science has come a long way, yet experts are still trying to understand certain aspects of wine aging. Like how exactly the reaction between tannins and oxygen affects the mouthfeel and flavor of wine over time. Or the role the cork-bottle interface plays in how wine develops.

Most wines are not meant to be aged more than a year or two, according to wine experts. But some are, and these are the wines you’ll want to treat with the utmost care. Proper wine storage is essential.

To get a better understanding of the science behind aging wine, we’ll explore some of the chemical reactions and environmental conditions that affect how a vintage wine transforms over time.

Factors That Influence How Wine Ages

Many things influence a wine’s potential for aging. Some are within your control, others aren’t. These factors include:

  • Grape variety
  • Vintage year
  • Wine region
  • Winemaking techniques
  • Ratio of acids, sugars, and phenolics to water
  • Growing and harvesting techniques (viticulture)
  • Cork quality and condition
  • Proper storage

Post-bottling storage conditions will significantly impact how a wine ages, so proper cellaring is vital.

Oxygen: A Tricky Molecule

Wine has a love-hate relationship with oxygen. Controlled oxygenation moves along chemical processes that help wine develop and age gracefully. 

The oxygen reacts with and softens the tannins in the wine. It also stabilizes phenols and increases flavor complexity. In the wine world, this is known as “micro-oxidation” or “micro-oxygenation.”

But if too much oxygen comes in too quickly, things can go south. The tannins can become overwhelmed, leading to the oxidation of other molecules. This can cause a funky taste and smell.

Acid is a natural preservative, so wines with higher acidity (lower pH) are less likely to suffer from this problem—as long as the cork is intact and kept moist.

Other Chemical Reactions That Impact Wine’s Flavor  

Polymerization: Over time, certain phenolic compounds in wine, such as tannins, undergo polymerization, where smaller molecules combine to form larger, more complex ones. This reduces that astringent “dry mouth” sensation, improving the texture and mouthfeel of the wine. Phenolics also polymerize, intensifying the shade of the wine and improving its complexity.

Acetal formation: Acetal formation occurs when alcohol reacts with acids or aldehydes in the wine, forming acetals. These compounds contribute to the development of fruity and floral aromas, as well as adding complexity to the wine’s flavor profile.

Ester formation: Esters are aromatic compounds formed by the reaction between alcohol and acids in wine. Esters are less stable, peaking in intensity at the end of fermentation. They’re most noticeable in young wines. As they fade they reveal other flavors and aromas that had previously been obscured.  

The Influence of Storage Conditions

The conditions under which your wine is stored have a huge impact on its aging. Not all wines are meant to be aged, but all wines need to be kept in certain temperature and humidity conditions to prevent spoilage.

For vintage wines, long-term storage conditions are critical to ensure they mature as intended by the winemaker. Wine that ages slowly in a cool environment (like a basement cellar) will have the greatest potential to develop complex flavors and aromas.  

The rate of chemical reactions doubles with each 18°F increase in temperature from the baseline of 55°F. Keep this in mind when thinking about long-term storage.

Wine stored in an exceedingly cold basement will age especially slowly—perhaps too slowly. Conversely, wine kept above 65°F is at risk of developing too quickly and spoiling, especially if it’s exposed to these higher temperatures for many years.

How To Tell if a Wine Is Ageworthy

Most wines are not age-worthy, according to the experts. Even very good ones should be uncorked within one or two years after bottling. Everyday wines you buy at your local grocery store, liquor shop, or specialty store generally fall into this category.

So how do you identify an age-worthy wine? And when do you know it’s worth dropping serious cash on a bottle?

In general, reds are more likely to age well. However, some argue that any wine—red or white—with the right structure, balance, and characteristics can age well. You just need to know what to look for.

The ratio of sugars, acids, and phenolics to water is one key factor. The less water in the grapes prior to harvest, the more aging potential a wine will have.

It’s why vintage wines from regions with long, warm summers and cool winters—like California’s Napa Valley or France’s Bordeaux region—are so popular for aging.

If you’re looking for wines to age, Cabernets, Pinots (from California and Oregon), and Vintage Ports are a good place to start.

Here are some key characteristics to look for when considering whether a wine is age-worthy. 

Red Wines

Tannins: Red wines that age well tend to have higher tannins (molecules that come from grape stems, seeds, and skins). Tannins are what create that familiar bitter, astringent taste. They have an antioxidant effect, preserving wine and helping it age well. Bordeaux is an example of wine that has high tannin content (on release), and it’s why this style is typically ripe for aging.

Acidity: A wine’s acidity level contributes to its sour and tart notes. Like tannins, acidity has a natural preservative effect. It’s why red wines with a higher acidity level (lower pH) tend to age better.  

Complexity: A general rule of thumb is that if a wine isn’t complex or well-balanced to begin with, it won’t become better with age. How do you know when wine is complex? Start with your nose. If you detect multiple layers and flavors that change each time you swirl and sniff, it’s likely a more complex wine. If you’re not sure, ask a trusted friend or wine expert.

Alcohol-level: Fortification (with spirits) produces some of the most age-worthy wines. Ports and sherries are good examples. These high-ABV wines age well and tend to last longer after opening than other types of wine.

White Wines

Color: Most white wines should be consumed within one to three years of bottling, although some varietals (like Chardonnay and Bordeaux Blanc) can age much longer. White wines don’t have the dark pigment of red wine, so they start out nearly clear and darken as they age. A change in color doesn’t necessarily mean white wine has gone bad. However, white wine that turns yellowish-brown is probably past its prime.

Sweetness: Sugar acts as a preservative, so sweeter white wines are more “ageable”—for example, dessert wines like Sauternes and Rieslings.

Acidity: White wines with higher acidity (lower pH) are more resistant to oxidation and other chemical changes that can turn wine. So, look for higher-acidity varietals for aging.

Aging Wine: Factors You Can and Can’t Control

Properly aging wine involves controlling all the things that are within your power while minimizing those you can’t control.

Factors you can control

  • Storage temperature: Keeping wine at a consistent, cool temperature is essential. Ideal temperatures range from 45°F to 65°F, depending on the type of wine.
  • Humidity: Maintaining the right humidity level (50%-70% relative humidity) prevents corks from drying out. This prevents air from infiltrating wine bottles, which can negatively impact the taste of wine.
  • Light exposure: UV rays from the sun and blue light from artificial lighting can react with components of your wine, creating nasty smells, like rotten eggs or wet wool. It’s why you should always store wine in a dark environment or in UV-protected bottles. White wine is most susceptible to “lightstrike,” so look for whites and rosés in green bottles.
  • Bottle position: Storing wine horizontally keeps the cork moist. This prevents it from drying out, which can allow oxygen infiltration.
  • Vibration: Movement and vibration can disturb sediments in wine, disrupting proper maturation and leading to undesirable tastes and aromas. Keep your wine well away from machinery like HVAC systems and pumps.
  • Air quality: Storing wine in a clean environment with no strong odors prevents undesirable aromas, like chemical smells from laundry detergent, from affecting the wine.

Factors you can’t control

  • Wine composition: The grape variety, vintage, winemaking techniques, and initial quality of the wine all influence its aging potential, and these factors are determined before you acquire the bottle.
  • Cork quality: The quality of the cork can affect how well it seals the bottle and protects the wine from oxygen infiltration.
  • External environment: Exposure to different altitudes and climate conditions during transportation and interim storage can impact how wine ages, but these factors are often beyond your control.
  • Bottle variation: Even within the same vintage and producer, there can be slight variations between bottles due to factors like bottling conditions, storage history, and individual cork characteristics.
  • Time: While you can control how long you age a wine in your cellar, you can't control the passage of time itself or its effects on the wine. Each bottle will age differently, even under the same conditions.

Managing the factors you can control and choosing your vintages wisely will give you better success in aging wine, protecting your investment.

How to Store and Age Wine

If you’re serious about aging wine, it’s worth investing in a proper wine cellar. You may already have a spot in mind that requires very little renovation, like a basement. If not, you may need to do a bit more work to create the optimal conditions for aging vintage wine.

Temperature: The space should be maintained at temperatures of 45°F to 65°F. If it’s too cold or too hot, chemical reactions can occur that harm the aroma and flavor of your wine.

Humidity: The humidity level should be maintained between 50% and 70% to keep corks moist. Too much humidity can cause mold to develop on the corks, possibly contaminating the wine. Not enough humidity will cause corks to dry out, creating a vacuum that sucks in oxygen, causing wine to spoil.

Position: Wine should always be stored on its side, preferably on wood or metal wine racks and/or storage cubes and bins.

Vibration: You should store wine well away from anything that causes vibration, such as appliances, HVAC systems, and pumps.

Bottom line: The space should be consistently cool, dark, damp, and vibration-free.  

Wine Cellaring & Display: Art Meets Science

Aging wine is a science. Creating a beautiful wine cellar is an art. A well-designed wine cellar will keep wine at the optimal temperatures while creating an attractive display.

It’s all about choosing the right combination of wine racks and cooling systemWood wine racks are earthy and traditional. Metal wine racks are sleek and stylish. Hybrid wine racks are a perfect marriage of the two styles.

Wine Racks America carries a huge selection of wine racks from leading brands, including VintageViewInstaCellarMillesime, and CellarVue. Our expert team is ready to help you build a beautiful, functional wine cellar worthy of your best vintages. Start your custom cellar design today.

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