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How to tell if an aged wine is too old to enjoy?

Color, flavor, and mouthfeel components change in aging wine. Some transformations are beneficial; others are non-desirable. Discover which ones.

August 4, 2021



What to expect when tasting an aged wine?
The good, the bad, and the ugly

The saying goes that wine improves with age. Do you agree?

I never tasted aged wines until I met serious wine lovers with a passion for cellaring wine. 

One occasion to taste aged wines is our annual Friendsgiving dinner. My friend Ann will always find some old vintages sitting in the corner of one of her closets. 

While we may not taste these wines in proper tasting conditions, we always like to comment on whether they have kept well or not. So how do we know the wine has not passed its prime?


Sensory changes in aging wines 

Some winemaking techniques rely on wine maturation to express its full potential. Wine aging can happen at the winery when wine ages in oak barrels for several months under the winemaker's control. It also ages in bottles, in the negociant's cellar or yours.

The sensory profile will change for the best or the worst

Your appreciation of an aged wine might be different from mine. 

Why? Because we might like different wine flavors. 

Yet, technically, some sensory changes are beneficial, and others may turn into non-desirable faults.

So, wine continues to evolve in the bottle until we drink it. This evolution is slow, triggered by oxygen present in the space between the closure and the liquid.

The space filled with air was either captured at bottling before closure; it can also permeate through the cork closure while in the cellar. 

And oxidation changes most sensory characteristics over time: mouthfeel, color, and flavor components, aroma, and taste. While oxidative aromas may bring complexity to the wine, they sometimes become faults. 


The Good    


Tannins, the phenolic compounds extracted from the grape berry skins and stems, contribute to the wine structure. Wine writers love to describe feelings evoked by tannins in the mouth as robust, harsh, aggressive, smooth, velvety, etc. 

Tannic wines, i.e. wines with a high concentration of tannins, create dryness in your mouth, some irritation, or sensations of grittiness. Once they mature in bottles, wine tannins agglomerate, which diminishes their astringency potential. The wines become smoother, which is a positive quality.     

Aroma and taste

Young white wines with high acidity tend to mellow over time; the acidity decreases. Tannic red wines will lose the bitterness they may have had when they were younger. These changes are beneficial to most wines. 

So-called tertiary aromas then formed from the change of chemistry in the bottle. Cooked or dried fruit notes appear, and resinous type characteristics develop, such as cedar or tobacco leaves. This change in flavor may not be pleasant for all drinkers.


The Bad        


Anthocyanins are the phenolic compounds responsible for the red wine color. While aging in a bottle, anthocyanins dissociate and form aggregates with tannins. The red color becomes lighter with age and eventually turns brown.

White wines darken with bottle oxidation, and their color also turns brown.


Fruity aromas, the expression of the grape varietal character or the result of fermentation, are predominant in younger wines and transform with bottle aging. 

The so-called bouquet or tertiary aromas develop during this maturation. Fresh fruit aromas become cooked or dried, and resinous type characteristics develop, such as cedar or tobacco leaves.

Eventually, the flavor intensity decreases so much that the wine becomes almost flavorless.


The ugly

Sometimes, off-flavors hidden by other components in young wines become more pronounced. 

For example, the spoilage caused by Brettanomyces. A medicinal or Band-Aid type of aroma might be acceptable for some drinkers when the wine is young. 

With aging, as the maturation flavor develops, and overall intensity decreases. The Brett character can become more pronounced and turn into a barnyard, horse sweat note that is unacceptable to most. Winemakers have noted that smoke taint is sometimes not noticeable in young wines but develops in aging wines. 

Oxidation can change the flavor profile more drastically. While notes of honey or walnut might still be acceptable for you, tasting bruised apples or boiled potatoes won't make you enjoy the wine, I bet.  

Learn more about oxidation and other faults and taints


How do we know the wine passed its prime?

It depends on your taste preference. My California friends love the aged wine characteristics while my husband doesn't enjoy them. You may enjoy leathery notes and cedar box characters, I don't. 

But for sure, a wine has passed its prime when it's colorless and flavorless. 

What is the oldest wine you've ever tasted? 

And had it passed its prime? Leave me a comment in the box below.

Categories: wine aroma, How to choose wine

Isabelle Lesschaeve

Principal, Blog author, and Wine Tasting Coach

Internationally renowned wine sensory scientist, Isabelle demystifies wine tasting and helps serious wine lovers sharpen their tasting skills and tasting notes in a supportive community.

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