Is it true that all wine improves with age?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I recall you commenting on the time-honored cliché that all wines improve with time, but it’s been a while. I’m looking for a refresher on the topic. Can you help?

—Jerry, Minneapolis, Minn.

Dear Jerry,

That old chestnut that wine improves with age is kind of outdated and unhelpful. Certainly it’s true that some wines—the most sought-after and expensive wines, to be sure—can improve and evolve for many years if not decades. That’s the whole romantic allure of the dark, dusty wine cellar.

But these days, most wines do not improve with age, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s because most modern wines are made to taste terrific when they’re released—no waiting required.

The suggestion that wine in general needs to age was probably more useful advice in previous centuries, when sweet and fortified wines—which age very well—were much more popular.

These days, that advice no longer holds true. You should expect wines to taste terrific when you buy them—including wines that have the stuffing to age.

What’s perhaps most unfortunate about this old adage is that it suggests that an average wine might somehow become something magical if you stick it in a wine cellar for 10 years. A wine cellar is not a wine hospital—that’s not how it works.

However, all wine will change with time. But whether or not that change is an improvement will depend on what you like. Aged wines can be an acquired taste. Primary fruit flavors fade, and secondary notes emerge that tend to be more nutty and earthy than the fruit-forward flavors of younger wines.

Most of the wines you’ll find at a retailer are made in a “drink now” style, meaning they’re ready to drink, and they should continue to taste great for another three to five years. By about age 10, expect wines like that to be showing those nutty, earthy mature notes.

That said, one of the magical things about wine is that it is constantly evolving, just as we are. As wines age, chemical compounds link together or dissolve, colors fade. Every time you open a bottle, you’re catching the wine at a different point in its development, and that can be a profound experience. I think it’s also true that one thing that makes a wine world-class is its ability to evolve with time. But aging potential isn’t necessarily an indicator of a wine’s greatness.

But let’s say you’ve got wines that will age well, and you’re someone who likes aged wines. Protect that investment by giving those wines the best possible chance to age gracefully. Ideally, in a cellar or cellar-like conditions, with a cool, consistent temperature and adequate humidity, and away from direct light and vibration.

—Dr. Vinny

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