There’s a popular misconception that wine categorically improves over time, and that older wines always taste better than young ones. In reality, a vast majority of the wine in today’s marketplace is meant to be consumed within 2-5 years of release, and only a select few possess the structural components to last until the newest member of your family comes of age.
Because of this, we’ve created a guide to the key characteristics of wines that can be gifted to your child decades in the future:
Tannins are phenolic compounds found in the skins and seeds of grapes that are imparted to red wines (and a small handful of whites) during fermentation. Tannins act to stabilize color and flavors in wine, and because of this, red wines that are naturally tannic make excellent candidates for long term aging.
Classic examples include Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and Bordeaux, Nebbiolo from Barolo and Barbaresco, and Syrah from the Northern Rhone Valley in France.
The natural acidity in wine also acts as a preservative against the various chemical changes that cause it to degrade over time. Because of this, wines that fall on the lower end of the pH scale have the potential to age for long periods, and examples include Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Burgundy, Sangiovese from Tuscany, and Riesling from Germany.
Wines that are fortified with neutral spirits to bring their alcohol levels above 17% become impervious to the effects of oxidation and can be aged for decades on end. Prime examples include Vintage Port and Madeira, some of the most affordable wines on the market with serious aging potential.
At high levels, sugar also acts as a preservative and increases the shelf life of wine. For this reason, richly sweet dessert wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji, and late harvest Riesling are smart bets for birth year bottles.
Any given vintage can yield dramatically different results across the world’s many wine-producing regions, so it’s also important to choose wines from regions that fared well in the year you’re shopping for. Below is a list of the best regional sources for birth year wines from a string of recent vintages:
2010: Bordeaux, Red Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, and Piedmont
2011: Vintage Port
2012: Napa Valley
2013: Tuscany, Priorat, and Napa Valley
2014: White Burgundy
2015: Bordeaux, Red Burgundy, the Northern Rhone, German Riesling, and Napa Valley
2016: Red Burgundy, the Southern Rhone, and Napa Valley
Large format bottles such as Magnums (1.5 Liters) and Double Magnums (3 Liters) have superior ageability to standard 750ml bottles. This is an effect of the reduced surface area of wine in larger bottles with respect to the oxygen that slowly seeps in via pores in the cork closure (too much oxygen will spoil a wine and turn it to vinegar, while a small amount over time will help it mature and develop additional complexity). When looking for a birth year bottle to age for two decades or more, it helps to think big.
Tasting Older Wines
If you’re going to purchase wines with the intention of cellaring them over the long term, it’s important to understand how their flavors will change over time. Generally speaking, as wines age their “primary” fruit flavors fade and begin to taste dried or stewed. In place of ripe fruit, “secondary” flavors that can be described as savory, vegetal, earthy, and oxidative come to the fore, and this effect is exacerbated over time. In short, if you prefer lush, ripe, fruit-forward styles of wine, it’s actually better to drink them young.
Of course, none of the above matters if you don’t store your wine correctly, so be sure to check out our guide on Proper Wine Storage for tips on protecting your investment.