“Contrary to popular opinion, only a small subgroup of wines benefit from extended bottle aging,” according to the Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson. This may mean that the special bottle you’ve been saving, may have been better if opened sooner.
What makes a wine age-worthy? First, it has to have the proper characteristics in youth to allow for development. Wines that possess these qualities will be made from grapes that were carefully tended to in the vineyard followed by quality winemaking. This extra care comes at a cost and will likely be reflected in the price. Vintage, wine region and how the wine was stored (hopefully in a cool dark place) will all have an effect on an aged wine.
Generally, red wines that have higher tannins, balanced with acidity, and a concentrated array of aromas and flavors can develop. With age the harsher tannins will soften and flavors such as leather, cedar box and an earthiness may emerge. Certain red grape varieties with higher tannins lend themselves to aging such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah. Pinot Noir is lower in tannins, yet a French red Burgundy (100 percent Pinot Noir) from a quality vineyard and vintage can age for decades.
Most white wines are best young, but some can become interesting with age. One of my favorite aged wines is German Riesling, which can develop honey and petrol flavors not present in its youth. Montrachet, a Grand Cru French Burgundy made from Chardonnay grapes will develop a nutty character along with other flavors when aged. Sweet white wines, such as Sauternes from Bordeaux, that have been affected by noble rot, a fungus that dehydrates grapes, will improve in the bottle for decades.
Some wines are distinctive for their fresh fruitiness. Whether red or white, these wines should be served while young.
I have just skimmed the surface on aging wine. If you are wondering about that bottle you have been saving, a general Internet search usually produces a quick answer as to whether it’s time to pop that cork tonight or let your special bottle age longer.