There are really only three things that can happen to a wine as it ages.
It can improve, which is what you hope for.
It can remain the same, which, depending on its quality, is usually a good thing, too.
Or it can decline, and all wines decline sooner or later.
I've been tasting lots of older wines the past few weeks and months for upcoming stories. For example, I tasted every bottle of Kosta Browne Pinot Noir dating back to 2000 with winemaker Michael Browne, and the wines were extremely impressive in terms of quality, consistent in that most of the wines had either held or gained, and demonstrated that the wines are aging very gracefully. It didn't change my mind that California Pinots are at their peak by age six, but of course there are wines that defy drink windows and can be aged for decades.
Last week I completed a retrospective of 2001 California Cabernets, and that too evoked the same response. For the most part, the wines have aged exceptionally well, so much so that it is one of the most impressive and revealing retrospectives I can recall in nearly 30 years of tasting older wines.
A few of the wines were, in one sense, genuine surprises. These were important names in Cabernet and their 2001s on release didn't show anywhere the depth and range of complexity they did last week. But today they demonstrate the upside of cellaring. The best are youthful, concentrated and well-built.
Another handful or two had also improved notably, going in most instances from very good or outstanding to the next level.
Some had stayed the same. For instance, a couple of wines that were very tannic a decade ago were still quite tannic. A few wines showed their maturity. In one instance, a wine that I've tried and liked very well in recent tastings had two bottles that were oxidized, wines that I omit from tasting reports if I know the wine has shown better. Most of the 2001s are ready to drink and in the few examples where the wines were showing gloriously they can age perhaps another decade.
It's worth considering, too, that wines can be great at different stages of their lives. A wine might be stunning on release, and less so a decade later; some promising wines shut down in their adolescence, only to re-emerge later even better than they were in their youth. It takes a truly exceptional wine to be at its most impressive after a decade or more in the bottle.