What are you saving it for?

Now is the time to savor great wine
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

See Sunset's 2005 Western Wine Award winners

Here's one of the biggest myths about wine: It gets better if you age it.

I have some experience with this illusion. Throughout my 20s, I closeted away (literally ― wines competed with shoes) a score of gift bottles of champagne on the theory that such wonderful wines shouldn't be "wasted" on a single person. I was waiting to share them with Mr. Right, an idea that (as every woman reading this and smiling to herself understands) made entire sense to me ― then. Some 12 or so years later and still unmarried, I decided to splurge and open one of the bottles. It tasted like a cross between rancid cooking sherry and stale bread. Panicked, I opened another bottle, then another. That night hundreds of dollars' worth of now worthless wine went down the drain.

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I learned several lessons from that fiasco, but the one that concerns us here is the simple yet insidious fallacy that all wines get better over time. A decade of wine research later, I know it's simply not true. In fact, most of the wines in the world are meant to be aged no longer than it takes to bring them home from the store.

However, the fact that certain wines don't need to be aged in order to be enjoyed doesn't mean they can't be aged. Take Zinfandel, for example. You can certainly keep a bottle of Zin around for several years. But whether it will actually taste better is a matter of opinion.

As wines age they lose their fresh, forward fruit character. If what you loved about that Zinfandel was its deliciously explosive ripe cherry flavors, aging it would make little sense: The longer you keep it, the more you sacrifice that dramatic cherryness. In place of expressive fruitiness, an aged wine takes on more subtle flavors that often defy description. This happens as a result of molecules recombining and coalescing in unpredictable ways. Sometimes these aged flavors are gorgeous and refined. Sometimes the wine just ends up tasting tired.

Is there any way to know which path a wine will take? Not definitively. What makes a wine develop the exact flavors it does over time remains largely a mystery. Practiced wine drinkers may have an inkling, but even for the most experienced palate, it's still a guess.

That said, certain types of wine are more likely to taste better after they've been aged than others. Three key factors make this possible: sugar, acid, and tannin. Each, in its own way, acts as a preservative.

Sugar is the easiest for most people to understand. Think of that honey you've had in the cabinet for 10 years; it probably still tastes fine. Similarly, sweet wines, like sauternes, can be aged for years, even decades. Very high acid wines, such as the top German Rieslings, can also taste miraculously fresh even after 10 or more years. And those high in tannin, a compound in grape skins and seeds, are usually built to last. This is why Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that is genetically high in tannin, is the wine you're most likely to find in people's cellars.

But for a wine to age successfully, the most important character it must possess is greatness. It must be complex, well balanced, rich, and concentrated right from the start. A simple, moderately priced every-night dinner wine is meant for tonight.

See Sunset's 2005 Western Wine Award winners
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