A discussion with Bill Williamson.
Élevage[ fr: the training of wine] is the art of maturing wine and has been an important part of enjoying fine wines for centuries. Some quality wines will improve with age, developing greater complexity with new aromas and flavors.
Prior to the 16th century relatively short aging was done in barrels or casks with great attention being paid to topping to keep the vessel full, preventing air contact. There was no real understanding of what happened to wine as it aged.
The development of bottles and corks at that time allowed wine to be stored without air contact. When wine is stored away from air it transforms to a different taste dimension, not only softer with the diminishing of tannins but with exciting new flavors.
Once the cork is in place, the bottle has only a small amount of air in contact with the wine, often referred to as the ullage. The air is composed of oxygen and carbon dioxide, both soluble gases while the wine contains tannins, acids, pigments and hundreds more unstable natural organic compounds, including microbes and bacteria.
It is in effect, a living set of organisms that make up the flavor and aroma of the wine, some of which need oxygen to reproduce while others can reproduce without oxygen (anaerobically).
The organisms will reproduce but the sealed bottle is in a reductive state where any such reproduction will reduce the possibility of further reproduction as the process progressively uses the available oxygen. This incredibly fine balance works against, rather than for, the generic aging process of wines and makes aging valuable only to specific wines.
Almost all wines will benefit from a stabilizing year in the bottle but relatively few will improve to be worthy of values two to three times their original retail value. Only a wine that already exhibits good characteristics with fine balance between its components of tannins, acids and sugars (not to mention the five hundred other organisms) is worthy of investment in the aging process.
Reasonable Aging Expectations of Our Wines
Most Williamson red wines wines will benefit from cellar aging. The optimum maturation period will depend on the style and vintage but a good estimate is our reds will continue to improve for seven to ten years after vintage date.
Older bottles of milder red wines such as Merlot or the Bordeaux blends may loose some of their original fresh brightness but the resultant wine will be smooth and dusky which many connoisseurs prefer.
Our Cabernet based wines will transform nicely developing far richer flavors than they presented during their first five years.
It is difficult to predict exactly when a wine will be at its best and the optimum time to drink will also depend upon your personal taste preferences. If you enjoy a wine with vibrant, fruit flavors then you don't need the wine with much age. If you prefer a more mellow, soft complexity then you are looking for a mature wine.
Smaller 375ml bottles will mature more quickly than standard 750ml bottles or magnums, as the proportion of air in the ullage space to the volume of wine is greater.
Bills Suggestions on Aging Wine
With these caveats in mind you can appreciate that the optimum time to drink and enjoy a wine is somewhat hit or miss. We therefore suggest that if you intend to age our wines it will be more fun to buy a case of one vintage and using a consistent scoring system, taste and score one bottle every year. While the wines scores are still going up, continue aging the wine. Once the scores level off, it's time to call your friends and drink the wine.
Since a case contains twelve bottles, by the time the last bottle is sampled you will have enjoyed the wine at it's best, regardless of your scoring methodology.