The Romance and Science of ageing wine

I must admit that for a Frenchman, my entry into the world of wine happened a) late and b) rather randomly. Whilst I very much more than made up for it in both volume and quality, I didn’t start drinking wine until the age of 23, which I realise may well shake many people’s belief that ALL French people start drinking (or at least tasting!) at age 5, therefore developing a healthy appreciation for fermented grape juice without any temptation to start binge drinking at 16 in reaction to years of stifling legal constraints. Oddly enough, after those 23-odd years of dedication to sports and the (relative) abnegation that came with it, it was when I left France to study in Newcastle, about 13 years ago, that I developed my first interest in wine (actually, thinking about it, perhaps developing a penchant for alcohol whilst living in Newcastle isn’t such a shocker after all… It certainly helps understand the Geordie dialect-no offense to our Northern friends!).

When I did start drinking and developing my interest in one of my nation’s most important exports (and a huge part of my heritage), the aspect that interested me most, apart from the delightful sensory experience it afforded, was the incredibly romantic notion of ageing wine. Carefully collecting bottles and cases while they’re still, in wine terms, infants, and patiently leaving them to mature in a vaulted cellar, dark, dusty and humid, a refuge not only for bottles but for their owner too, a place to contemplate, by the grace of candlelight out of respect for old traditions, racks full of glass vessels from various continents, and dream of dinner parties to come, where that bottle, by now in its prime and showing a perfect harmony between some of the juicy fruitiness of youth and the savoury complexity and silky smooth texture doted upon it by this extended ageing, can now really come into its own, and provide an absolute treat to the senses but also fuel rewarding conversation with a like-minded friend who also revels in that special experience. I must say every single one of my top 20 best wine experiences has been in company of fellow wine lovers, and I would not contemplate opening a prized bottle on my own.

In order to age this gracefully, wine needs several things. First of all, it has to have plenty of fruit, as this will be depleted as the liquid slowly oxidises and a wine without fruit is, in my humble opinion, a little like porridge without milk – dry and joyless. Fruit on its own isn’t enough, however. Wine needs structure, without which it cannot be a satisfying drink, or even a refreshing one. Tannins and acidity have to be present, and they have to be in balance with the level of fruit in the wine. In my still relatively modest experience, it is extremely rare (though not impossible) for a wine that is out of balance in its youth to magically achieve equilibrium later in life.

Given that those conditions are met and that you have an age-worthy wine, providing the right environment for its development is very important. Wine is very fragile, and light, vibrations and sudden temperature changes can all be harmful to those treasured bottles. Corks can dry out and shrink, letting too much oxygen in, so a high level of humidity is very important too. This is also the reason why bottles have to be stored horizontally. Whilst a cool temperature (typically 10-14 degrees Celsius in an underground cellar) will offer optimum conditions, slightly higher temperatures are not necessarily a massive problem, as long as they are constant. Wine will develop faster in warmer temperatures but it is those sudden changes that are truly harmful.

Of course very few of us have the benefit of an underground cellar. Wine fridges are therefore incredibly useful, providing scientifically accurate conditions to age the wine and deliver it to the table in peak condition, sadly without much of the romance of that dark cellar. Specialist warehouses such as Vinothèque also offer perfect conditions, space and of course the option to keep wine in bond, which is of paramount importance for any investment-grade wines that may be sold in the future. This is where my beloved bottles mature, at least until I buy a house with the cellar of my dreams, at which point my greatest challenge will be not to disturb them too much and keep the visits downstairs to the strict minimum!

Ludovic Surina

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