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All aging process is not so mundane, especially if we are talking of the aging of wine. Wine is a living thing and allowing it to mature can transform it to the core. Writes Manisha Dasgupta
Can the process of aging ever be graceful? With innumerable anti-aging creams flooding market, the never-ending queue at the chamber of cosmetic surgeons and products like botox and silicon becoming household names, there is every evidence that aging is not a very desirable thing to happen. After all, it means losing charm, vigour and excitement of life, right?
Not always. All aging process is not so mundane, especially if we are talking of the aging of wine. Wine is a living thing and allowing it to mature can transform it to the core. Aging of wine helps improve its quality and enhance the taste to the maximum thus offering a sustained pleasure to the drinker.
What is Wine Aging?
‘Aging’ and ‘maturity’ are phrases that often come up even during not-so-serious wine discussions. So what do these terms actually connote? There is a subtle difference between these two terms. Broadly, aging is a process where fermented grape juice rests, first in a barrel and then in a bottle. The term wine 'maturation' refers to changes in wine after fermentation and before bottling. During this period, the wine is subjected to various treatments, such as malolactic fermentation, clarification, stabilization, and bulk storage. The important feature of this phase is that the wine is periodically exposed to air where many oxidative reactions influence the changes in wine composition. On the other hand the term ‘aging’ should be reserved to describe changes in wine composition after bottling. Once the wine is bottled contact with oxygen is a strict no-no. This is called the reductive atmosphere. Many reactions occur during this phase to contribute to the final bottle bouquet.
The Catch in Between
So there is an inherent contradiction in the whole process. On one hand wine is exposed to oxygen so that important oxidative reactions can shape its composition, while on the other, oxygen is a taboo after the wine is bottled. How much wine, therefore, should be right to bring out the bouquet of flavours and aroma? Famous French Vigneron cum wine maker Stéphane Derenoncourt says: “The goal of the aging process is to wean the wine from oxygen so he will survive well in the bottle, which is a hermetic environment.” While Derenoncourt opines that the most important factor of wine aging is the management of the amount of oxygen and the quality of the barrels if it is a wooden aging, still he maintains that there is no true recipe for the aging process. “Don’t forget that wine is a living product and we need to adapt to it,” he signs off.
To Age or Not to Age
It’s of course a known fact among wine lovers that not all wines have aging potential. The aging plan or regime followed by a winery is governed by the style of wine desired. Some wines require only a short period to develop and generally do not benefit from prolonged maturation and aging. Fresh, fruity whites, light blush, light reds, and nouveau style red wines are produced for early consumption and their quality reaches the peak in a relatively short time. These wines are generally released within a year of their production. Aging them longer is neither beneficial nor economical. Jeff Grier, the Chairman of Cape Winemakers Guild, South Africa and the Director of Villera Wines echoes the view: “The most important factor is selecting the right wine for aging. Then in descending order of importance it would be temperature (consistent rather than low) humidity ( not too low), light (it should be a dark environment) and vibration (should be free of vibration).Cork is better than screw cap and it should be a quality cork ( long and with as few flaws as possible).”
Uncorking the Possibilities
Or should we say, screw the cork? The winemakers disagree. Screw caps may have umpteenth numbers of positive aspects but when it comes to allow controlled access of oxygen to the wine. Grier says, “Slow oxygenation by means of air is responsible for aging, which is why screw cap is less effective. The cork allows limited air pass through it, which allows the evolution. If the cork dries out (poor cork, or the bottle is stored upright) then large amounts of air will damage (oxidise or worse) the wine. The process of oxygenation (aging) must be as gradual as possible.”
Effects of Aging
Simply put, aging brings out the full potential of a wine, develops it and makes it soft and round. Given the time to age, tannins in a wine can be velvety and still give the wine lasting pleasure. Good natural acidity coupled with adequate tannins are what allow a wine to age gracefully in the bottle. It is also important that the wine have complexity so that it has the elements that will evolve into new flavours and aromas over time. As Cathy Corison, the celebrated American-origin Napa winemaker and the founder of Corison Winery in California puts it: “Aging is oxidative, so the management of the air a wine receives during élevage is really what making age-worthy red wine is all about. How much air and how it is delivered varies depending on variety, terroir, wine style and vintage.” For Corison, racking and topping timing, frequency and method are her "tools" to make extraordinary wines - “No fancy equipment required.” The Cabernet expert says: “Two different winemakers can receive the exact same load of grapes and years later, after countless small decisions, wind up with completely different wines. Therein lies the magic that makes wine infinitely fascinating.”
Artificial Aging vs. Natural Aging
Using artificial method to accelerate the natural aging process has been a common practice since long. Modern winemaking techniques like micro-oxygenation can have the side effect of artificially aging the wine. In the production of Madeira wines, the wines are deliberately exposed to excessive temperatures to accelerate the maturation of the wine. Derenoncourt however prefers the natural method, though he maintains that modern oxygenation techniques can be very interesting for some particular type of product, for example the basic wine production. Corison, on the other hand is very subtle in her approach. “Wine is alive- a living, breathing thing. In my mind the more I stay out of the way the better; I am a steward and great grapes make great wine,” she says with a smile.
Chemistry of Wine Aging
Wine is a complex combination of many chemical compounds, which change as they interact with each other and their environment. Intricate reactions between the acids, sugars, alcohols, yeasts and phenolic compounds in wine are what modify the aromas in the bottle. Similar chemical reactions happen when the wine is resting in barrels. When we age wine, we hope for changes that cause the wine to mature well by gaining a complex mix of complimentary flavors. As the molecular reactions that take place during aging vary between grape varietals, regions, and even crops from year to year. And herein lies the greatest mystery and chemistry of wine for even the greatest winemakers cannot precisely predict how the flavour of wine would develop as it ages gradually. They can at best guess that the compounds in wine react over time and create new flavours changing the ordinary grape juice into something more complex and subtle.
Molecular changes and reactions in wine is a vast and critical subject. The basic bottomline is that all the intricacies are centred in the natural aromatic compounds of grapes which act as a means to attract pollinating insects. Without the primary aromas of grapes the chemical reactions wouldn’t have been possible for they would have no base to work on. Again grapes get their aromas from the perfect balance of sun, soil and rain. So next time you pick up a bottle of well crafted, fine wine, do remember it’s not just a bottle of wine but a piece of nature that you are holding in your hand.