One of the most pervasive myths surrounding wine is that it gets better with age, but is this actually true?

A lot of the time, ageing your wine isn’t strictly necessary. This is not to say that time in bottle can’t be beneficial. Much like humans, wine goes through an awkward adolescent phase where things seem a little out of balance. Perhaps the wine is a bit closed off after bottling, the tannins need to soften, or that stunning oak needs a chance to better integrate with the wine. These are all things that resolve with a little patience and time to develop, but to suggest that all wines are improved by a few extra years in bottle is misleading. Identifying when and why a wine should be aged depends on a few different factors:

Is your wine designed for ageing?

A lot of wines are intended for youthful consumption. This is particularly true of wines that are typically light and refreshing. Take a classically crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc or a Provencal rosé for instance. These wines are characterised by fresh fruity notes, bright perfume and zippy acidity. These qualities are best enjoyed young and will likely diminish with maturity.

There are other wines that benefit from short to medium-term ageing – up to five years in bottle – but aren’t built for long term cellaring. In certain countries, this is factored into a wine's production as a legal requirement; for example, with specific styles of Chianti Classico in Italy and Rioja in Spain it is necessary to mature wine in bottle for a period of time to ensure they’re ready to go upon release.

But even when it’s not required by law, a bit of time in bottle can be desirable: take a Margaret River cabernet sauvignon. A variety with pronounced fruit character and bold tannins, cabernet can be a little intense as a young wine and often needs a year or two to settle. It also tends to give more complex, mocha and earthy notes with short to medium-term ageing, which makes for a more interesting drinking experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have wines like Penfolds Grange. This classic Aussie red is nothing less than robust and known for its dense fruit, powerful aromatics and bold tannins. It’s a big wine that is designed for ageing, allowing time for flavour and structure to soften and harmonise.

Secondly, has your wine been stored correctly?

If you have decided that you’ve got a wine worth waiting for, another important consideration is how it’s stored. It may seem like a simple thing, but how you store your wine will affect how it ages. We’re not saying you need a fancy, underground temperature controlled cellar, but creating the right conditions will ensure that your wine looks its best if you do choose to age it.

Here are a few basic rules that will keep your wine in good shape:

  • Storing your wine at a cool temperature is ideal, but consistency is more important. It’s the fluctuations in temperature and humidity that can cause a wine to prematurely oxidise.
  • Make sure your wine is kept out of direct sunlight to prevent UV rays from degrading and prematurely ageing wine. This is why so many wines are bottled in dark glass – to provide additional protection from harsh, harmful light.  
  • If the wine is under cork, make sure it’s stored on its side. If stored upright, the cork eventually shrinks and lets air into the bottle, which can spoil the wine. By storing the bottle on its side, the cork is kept moist – preventing shrinkage – and allows a wine to ‘breathe’. This gradual introduction of oxygen causes the wine to develop and tannins to mature.
  • Wines under screwcap don’t let any air into the bottle and can be stored either vertically or horizontally.

Finally, and most importantly, do you like how aged wine tastes?

As wine matures its flavour profile changes, generally giving way to what we refer to as tertiary characters – the aromas and flavours that develop from time in bottle. While there are some common notes that can emerge – nuttiness, notes of chocolate, coffee and caramel – expressions of age manifest quite differently in white and red wines.

In white wines, the fruit profile tends toward more dried fruit characters – apricot, apple, banana – and marmalade notes. However, some other common descriptors can include cinnamon, ginger, toast, cereal, mushroom, hay, honey and even kerosene depending on the variety.

In red wines, flavours similarly translate as dried or cooked fruits, including characters like prune, dried fig, cooked plums and dried cranberries. But red wines also reveal more savoury character as they mature, with potential notes of leather, forest floor, mushroom, game, cedar, tobacco, meat and farmyard (a vague, animal aroma).

Now, these are just examples – not all wines come to taste like this. But it’s important to recognise whether or not you enjoy these flavours in a wine. And just because you like aged reds, doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy aged whites. As in all things wine-related, the best way to understand your palate is by drinking with curiosity and tasting widely.