Aging Wine (MoreWine!)

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The French use the term élévage to refer to the aging/storage period in a wine’s life. It equates to our term “to raise” in English, as in raising a child.

An appropriate term, since our job as winemakers during this stage is to watch over the wine while providing the care and proper environment needed for it to have the best chance of developing positively. Aging/storage is made up of three parts: letting the wine continue to work on its own, monitoring its progress both chemically (by testing) and sensorally (by tasting), and carrying out a series of rackings for clarification as needed. Each of these three elements works together as a complete system that allows us to help keep the wine safe as it continues its maturation. Throughout this period, winemakers will need to properly maintain the SO2 levels, hold the temperature at a constant 55-60°F, and taste the wine every 4-6 weeks to monitor its evolution.  

Understanding Polymerization and the need to remain vigilant

Even though we are doing very little “hands-on” work, as compared to the previous steps of crushing, fermenting and pressing, remember that wine is never static. It is always moving, shifting, and alive; and it continues to develop throughout the entire aging/storage period whether we are involved or not. At work is a phenomenon called polymerization.  

Essentially the process of smaller molecules connecting up to create larger ones, polymerization creates more complex flavor, aroma, and structure.    While we have all heard that complexity is good in a wine, realize that just because a wine gains in complexity does not mean that it will always be better. The following two examples illustrate how polymerization can be either positive or negative: 

  • On the positive side, a well-made wine that has the right amount of micro-oxidative exposure will create beneficial, soft and agreeable tannin structures.   
  • On the negative side, a wine that has an untreated H2S problem will also experience a transformation.  When the H2S molecules eventually polymerize together to become mercaptans, it‟s an even bigger problem than the original H2S.  

Both of these are examples of a wine gaining complexity, but they couldn‟t be further apart in terms of their desirability. In addition, due to polymerization can cause a wine that seemed sound just after fermentation to develop problems (such as H2S) during the aging/storage period – yet another reason to keep checking in with the wine as it ages. 

The important thing to take from each of these examples is that wine will continue to evolve/polymerize as it ages.  We have to constantly pay attention to the process in order to not get caught off-guard by any potentially negative developments.   Now that we have an idea of how constant polymerization in wine creates the need to monitor it, let‟s look at the other elements involved in developing the wine. We‟ll first look at temperature and later focus on SO2 management.

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