As the old saying goes, “wine tastes better with age.” This old proverb is a truism that owes its existence to the array of fine wines that take several years to reach full flavor, and has become a byword for graceful aging.
Poetic as this statement may be, it is also ultimately incorrect, at least to a certain threshold. Rare, centuries-old vintages have repeatedly been found to be undrinkable, a surprising though ultimately logical turn of events. Much like most edible and potable substances, wine has an expiration date, and it does eventually spoil, though at timescales not seen in other foods and drinks due to the presence of ethyl alcohol that prevents the growth of bacteria.
In truth wines age following a bell curve, with some varieties reaching optimum flavor after a certain period of aging, then gradually declines in flavor before it eventually spoils. This “sweet spot” in wines varies, but usually ranges the few decades after production. Therefore, identifying the vintage year is crucial; it allows tasters to pinpoint when a desired flavor profile has been reached.
Why certain wines taste better after a period of aging involves the gradual change in chemical composition of the wine throughout the aging process. Tasters can determine this through subtle characteristic differences in the flavor of wines that aged over a decade. The fruit profiles, for instance, might become less tart and more pronounced, while acidity and tannins are less prominent.