How Do You Make a Wine for the Ages?
By SEAN P. SULLIVAN
“It’s like the holy grail, to make wines that age that you can enjoy 20, 30 or 40 years later,” says Rick Small, who founded Woodward Canyon Winery with his wife Darcey in Lowden, Washington in 1981. Since then, the pair have created some of Washington State’s most age worthy wines, with their children Jordan Dunn-Small and Sager Small recently taking the helm.
Many winemakers strive to create wines that stand the test of time. It’s a difficult endeavor that requires certain conditions in the vineyard and winery, some of which are beyond winemakers’ immediate control.
“The wine has to have the right amount of fruit, it has to have the right amount of acidity, and it has to have the right amount of tannin,” says Small. “That’s going to all want to be integrated with the alcohol. In order for a wine to be ageable, it needs to have all of those things in the right proportion: fruit, acid and tannin.”
Controlling the Rate of Oxidation
“At the end of the day what is aging? It’s a process of oxidation,” says Chris Figgins, president and second-generation winemaker at Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla, Washington. To age over decades, a wine needs to have components that slow its oxidation and allow the wine’s elements to evolve in harmony. Tannins and acidity are two of the most important of these components. Tannins provide structure and add oxidative capacity. The more tannin, the slower a wine will oxidize. Acidity brings backbone and freshness to wine, but it also has an antioxidant effect, similar to how squeezing fresh lemon or lime onto guacamole keeps it from turning brown.
However, it’s not just simply a matter of having these components, but rather getting them in the right proportions.
“You can argue yes, the more tannin the better, the longer lived,” says Casey McClellan, who founded Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla in 1987, before retiring earlier this year. “But is the wine worth drinking at any point in its life?”
Vineyard Factors Affecting Ageability
Creating wines with the capacity to age starts at vineyard site selection.
“You want to be able to take a great site and leverage it into great wine,” says McClellan. “You need a place where you can control water status and stress level. You need vine health that you can then stress back to promote more concentration and character in the fruit.”
Certain grape varieties are prone to age better than others. Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo, for example, have naturally higher levels of tannins. And, while many think of red wines as more likely to age, some white wines can show profound aging potential.
“Look at Riesling,” says McClellan. “You can have searing acidity and 8%, 9% [or] 10% alcohol [by volume] and low residual sugar, and if the fruit is concentrated, you’ve got lovely 30-, 40-, 50-year-old wines.”
“I don’t believe that you can take weak wine and make it more interesting by aging it.” —Casey McClellan, Seven Hills Winery With the right site and grape varieties, it’s then a matter of shepherding fruit development by managing the canopy growth, crop load and berry development, irrigating as appropriate. The goal? To drive concentration.
“You really want to produce fruit that has concentration and character at the beginning of its life, so that it can evolve through that,” says McClellan. “I don’t believe that you can take weak wine and make it more interesting by aging it.”
The next step is deciding when to harvest. “First and foremost, it’s picking earlier to preserve acidity,” says Ben Smith, founder and winemaker at Cadence Winery in Seattle. “That acid balance is critical to aging.”
Smith waits until his fruit is just ripe, without allowing it to veer into overripe.
“With the Cabernet family—Franc and Sauvignon—I’m really just waiting until the mean, green flavors go away, and then we’re in the zone for picking,” says Smith. “At that point, acidity is still bright.”
McClellan agrees. “Watching my wines over decades, if you can pick right at the front end of the ripeness zone, it allows a wine to age longer and evolve.”
After the fruit has been picked with enough natural acidity and tannin to give the wine potential to age, the next step is extraction. “Then, it’s a question of, how much of that are you going to extract?” says Figgins.
He’s referring to the combination of color, fruit and tannin pulled from the grapes. This is determined during fermentation, when yeast converts sugars into alcohol. Key to the process is oxygen, which is needed in precise amounts to promote healthy fermentation and tannin development.
“The goal is to get your tannins moving in the right direction, making longer chains through oxygen exposure early, and then shut it down and throttle it,” says Figgins. Fermentation temperature also plays a critical role.
“For Cabernet and Petit Verdot, it can make a pretty dramatic difference going up to 89°F or even 91°F, where you build a little more body into the wine,” says McClellan. “It allows you to build a little stronger wine that can last longer.” In contrast, for ageworthy Merlot and Malbec, he prefers to ferment between 85–87°F.
As fermentation nears completion, winemakers press the grapes. The more pressure they apply, the more tannin they can extract. “The key is to try and get your flavor components in balance with the tannic density,” says McClellan. “I like to have fruit supported by tannin and not have tannin be the dominant character of the wine with fruit underneath.”
Winemakers bring their own tastes and style to it, too. Some prefer greater amounts of tannin and others less.
“I don’t mind more prevalent tannins early in a wine’s life because I know those harder tannins up front mean a longer aging curve for the wine,” says Smith. “I don’t want ultrasoft tannins up front because they tend to go away more quickly.”
Aging at the Winery
Oxidation also occurs as wine evaporates from barrels over time. As this happens, tannin structures evolve, which impacts mouthfeel and the wine’s evolution. Oak’s compounds also provide additional stability that enhance a wine’s aging potential.
The need to maintain strict control over oxygen remains paramount during this stage. Too much oxidation too quickly, and the wine will collapse prematurely. Too little and it will taste undrinkable in the bottle. For tannins to develop and soften, a controlled amount of oxygen is required.
“I know guys who do very reductive winemaking, and their wines age well,” says Smith. “And then you have the death and resurrection winemakers, who oxidize fairly heavily up front but then lash it with a fair bit of [sulfur dioxide] as they go to the bottle. Some of those wines age well too.”
Certain varieties, like Petit Verdot, have more natural tannin and acidity, and can be added to blends to enhance aging potential. Winemakers can also include some juice pressed at higher pressures, where more tannin was extracted.
“It’s almost taking these components and using them just like you would seasoning in the kitchen,” says Small. “You can do this to get complexity in wines, but you can do the same thing to get more ageability in wine.”
Figgins says it’s hard to overstate the importance of balance and proportion to the longevity of a wine.
“To me it means that all of the components are relatively in harmony,” he says. “I have found that every time that is not the case, the wines don’t age as well.”
Does Alcohol Content or Vintage Make a Wine Age Longer?
“I wouldn’t say alcohol is irrelevant, but within the range of table wine, it’s a minor player in the ageability equation,” says McClellan. “I pay much more attention to tannin, acid levels and adequate flavor for the trajectory of the wine.”
It’s worth noting, though, that as ripeness—and therefore potential alcohol—increases in the vineyard, acidity drops. This can be adjusted at the winery. Winemakers who aim to make long-lived wines must also strike a balance between aging potential while also delivering pleasure in the immediate term.
“When we do blending trials, I always tend toward a more tannic wine and my wife is like, ‘No, we have to sell this in a year and a half,’ ” says Smith, with a laugh. In this regard, some winemakers use a process called microoxygenation. This technique adds controlled amounts of oxygen into the wine, which advances development and makes the wine more enjoyable to consume in the near term by softening tannins.
However, this tends to decrease ageability.
Vintage also plays a significant part in a wine’s ability to age. “Sometimes [just] because you want to make a wine that ages well doesn’t mean that you’re going to [be able to] do it, because you’re going to have to work with what you get,” says Small.
Most winemakers believe cooler vintages generally create longer lived wines, in part due to the grapes’ higher natural acidity. Figgins recalls how 2009, a hot vintage in Walla Walla, affected his wines’ alcohol content.
“I struggled in the blending to get a good balance that year. Still to this day, when I taste ’09s, they are just a little hot [with alcohol] to me. Customers love them because they are gushing with fruit. But I already see that wine on a more rapid aging curve than all the vintages surrounding it.”
Sulfites, Corks and Oak
Natural byproducts of the winemaking process, sulfites are added by some winemakers during fermentation, when a wine is in barrel or at bottling. “Sulfites have a three-fold effect,” says McClellan. “First of all, they protect from microbial damage. Second, oxygen’s chemical reaction is retarded by sulfite addition. Finally, your tannin polymerization is inhibited.” Increasing sulfites can substantially enhance a wine’s ageability, by inhibiting the effects of oxygen and tannin development. Their antimicrobial properties also play a role.
“Squeaky cleanliness helps wines age really well,” says Figgins. “It really does.” A bottle’s closure also impacts aging potential by allowing more or less oxygen in. With newer, alternative and synthetic closures, winemakers can control the amount of oxygen transfer that occurs in the bottle, helping to accelerate or slow a wine’s development. Traditional natural cork also allows oxygen transfer, but with variability, as no two corks are alike. Oak aging, lees contact and residual sugar can also make wines oxidize less quickly.
How to Know if a Wine Will Age?
“The number one question I get from our consumers is, ‘When should I drink this?’ ” says Figgins.
It can be a difficult question to answer. “I don’t think you can point to any one factor,” says Smith. “It’s always the sum of the wine that makes the difference. Is there tannin? Is there acid? Is there fruit?” There is also a human factor in determining when a wine’s best to drink.
“I start playing 20 questions,” says Smith. “You have to know as much about the consumer as the wine to actually answer that question.” McClellan suggests an experiment to assess a wine’s ageability. Open a bottle, have a glass, and then come back and taste it at 24 and 48 hours. “If you can be 48 hours with some oxygen in there and the wine still has freshness, that’s a useful piece of data,” says McClellan. He notes that maintaining a temperature between 65–68℉ is important.
Figgins recommends another approach.
“The funnest part of drinking aged wine is not just saving your whole case for that magic year when it’s at its apogee,” he says. “Drink wine through its youth. Keep notes. Drink some at five years old. Drink some at 10. If you find where you feel like it’s in the sweet spot, then get after it.”