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© Ric Einstein 2009
Wine Ageing Questions
The following questions were received from Victor Ng and I thought they may
interest some of our less expert readers.
I am a Malaysian working in China and have been drinking wine for the past 10
years. I find that my preference for wine style has been ever changing. Right
now I usually go for medium body and the so called elegant wine. For Australian
red wine which is usually big and full, I will go for early vintage i.e. at
least 7 years old. I have been keeping new wine in my fridge and now enjoying
the fruit of Vasse Felix Cab Sauv 99, Rosemount Show Reserve Cab Sauv 98, GSM
98, Traditional 98, Stonewell Shiraz 96, Jim Barry Mcrae Wood 99 and Henschke
Keyneton 00. However I am not always lucky as some wine cannot be kept for so
long and has become sherry like flavor due to oxidation.
Anyway the above is not to show off or anything like that (anyway most of the
wine I mentioned are cheap except Stonewell) but rather to give a brief
introduction of myself. I will go straight to the question and hope you would
1. When you said some wine have to be aged in order to develop complexity, do
you mean it will have extra flavor? What I can think of is the tannin and
acidity will be softened and made it more easy drinking. For example if I
compare Stonewell shiraz 96 which I took in 2002 and 2007, the aroma has
developed from fresh berry to pastry like flavor. On the pallet except it is
more approachable, the complexity is still the same to me.
2. When you said the wine is sleeping now but will open up later, what has
caused this to happen? Are all wine or only good wine will experience this
3. Very often I come across tasting note saying ďwell integrated oakĒ, what do
they mean by that? What will the wine taste like if the oak is not well
4. I also come across many tasting notes trying to describe tannin such as fine
tannin, raw edge tannin, hard and soft tannin and etc. What has caused tannin to
have so many different types?
TORB Responds: You ask some interesting and very complex questions. If I
answered them completely, it would almost be enough to fill a book, so I will
try and touch on the highlights.
In order to answer some of your questions, I will briefly explain the ageing
process of wine.
When the red grapes are first picked and crushed, it just tastes like pure grape
juice. Once the yeast is introduced, be it artificially or naturally, the wine
ferments and happily bubbles away converting sugar into alcohol. Once the wine
has been through its primary fermentation, it tastes like alcoholic grapefruit
juice. For want of a better description, it's not only youthful; itís powerful
and often raw.
Basically the wine is made up of three major components. The fruit flavours, the
acid and the tannins. The fruit flavour is in its primary stage and often fairly
one-dimensional. The acid can also be very fresh or even sometimes a little
sharp. The tannins are interesting. They come from a number of components.
Firstly, the grape skins themselves. They also come from the pips and stalks. If
the wine is pressed too hard the tannins will be more noticeable. There is one
other factor that influences the tannins; the oak.
If the wine is placed into new oak, the more influence and oak tannin will exert
on the wine. The courser the grain, the greater and more noticeable the tannins
will be; the tighter the grain, the tighter the tannins. Many of the Shiraz
wines that have been matured in French oak often show more elegance and tighter
tannins than a similar wine aged in American oak.
As the wine spends time in barrel, a tiny amount of air manages to seep in and
this helps to soften the wine. You may have heard of the term microoxygenation.
This process basically introduces small, controlled amounts of oxygen into the
wine (normally in a stainless steel tank) in an endeavour to make the wine more
approachable in a faster timeframe. Likewise, when the wine is racked, a small
amount of oxygen is also introduced. As the wine sits in barrel, and it doesn't
matter whether it's a small barrel with loads of oak influence, or a huge old
vat, the wine starts to soften and integrate.
The tannins softens, the acid becomes less pronounced, and the wine starts to
lose its primary fruit character slowly. Once the wine comes out of the oak and
goes into bottle, it continues to mature slowly. Over time, the tannins soften
further and may even drop out completely, and that is why you frequently see
lots of sludge and sediment in the bottom of old wine. The flavour moves from
its primary state, taking on more complex flavours, often picking up leathery
If for example you take something like the 96 Stonewell, at 10 years of age it
will be at peak. It will then start going downhill, take on increasing amounts
of leathery characteristics, lose its fruit flavour and eventually wind up like
If a wine like this has oxidised in a period of less than 10 years, it is
through cork failure, not a fault of the wine. If the wine is a $5 rough red
that is designed to be drunk immediately, it won't have the tannin structure, or
the acid, to support a slow and gradual life cycle. It will be fine when as
young, but then will be passed it, or over the hill, fairly quickly.
If your wine is being kept cool, the sorts of wines that you mention should all
last seven years.
In regard to your question about sleeping, this is one of the great unknowns.
Certainly wines that are designed to be consumed early donít do it. Wines that
are designed for medium to long term ageing often do, and you can't always pick
when it is going to happen. Most of the time it is fairly soon after bottling,
and the length of time that it will sleep is about as long as a piece of string.
Even then, wine is not that simple. On occasions I have had wine that was say
six or seven years old and I thought the wine was starting to go south. A year
or two later, it had bounced right back again and was in the prime of its life,
ready for round two. Admittedly the situation is not very common, but it does
In terms of your question in relation to well integrated oak, this one is a
little easier to answer. If wine goes into a brand-new barrel, and its tasted
three weeks later, the impact of the oak is tremendous and you can damn near
spit out woodchips. Itís raw and not pleasant. Over time, the fruit leeches into
the barrel and the flavour of the oak leeches back into the wine. During this
process, if there is sufficient fruit, eventually, even if it is in the bottle,
the fruit will absorb the oak characters and they will shine through.
If you ever try a wine like Penfold St Henri, as it is aged in huge old oak
vats, there is no oak influence at all. At the other extreme, try a wine like a
1998 Yalumba Octavius to see the difference.
The 96 Stonewell was aged in a combination of French and American oak. The
French oak component made the wine a lot more approachable on its release than
the 94 vintage, which was matured in American oak.
To further answer your question in regard to tannins, remember they come from
skins, pips, stalks, and oak. If the grapes are not properly ripe, the tannins
would be ripe either, and they will have a green edge to them. If the oak is new
and coarse grain, the tannins will show the impact of the oak. Hard tannins are
normally associated with either drought years, or pressing the wine too hard.
Soft tannins are normally from wine that has not had a lot of skin contact
and/or has been handled gently.
There are some other tricks that can affect the tannins, like reverse osmosis,
fining, filtering etc.
I hope this helps you a little.
© Ric Einstein 2007