Aging is term thrown around a lot in wine culture, which raises questions like: does Chardonnay get better with age?
The answer to the question is yes, but only to a certain extent, as all foods no matter how well preserved will eventually spoil.
Most Chardonnays will only improve for the first five years of aging, although some vintages can be aged longer. It is rare to find a good Chardonnay for drinking that is really old.
The key to aging Chardonnay, like any wine is to know how long the wine can be aged before it becomes undrinkable.
To understand how different Chardonnays benefit from aging this article will discuss how Chardonnay is made, why wine is aged, and how aging effects Chardonnay wines.
How is Chardonnay Made?
To understand how aging effects Chardonnay it is important to understand the many factors and processes that go into making Chardonnay wine.
Chardonnay wine is made from the Chardonnay grape, an extremely hardy strain of wine grapes originating from Burgundy, France. Chardonnay grapes will grow almost anywhere grapes can survive, in almost any climate or soil composition. This means not only is Chardonnay easy to cultivate, but shockingly diverse in flavor.
As an example, Chardonnays from colder, norther regions are generally fruitier in flavor and lighter in body while warmer, southern Chardonnays tend to be much fuller bodied. This is because the environment a grape grows in shapes the qualities it develops, which in turn effects the wine created from those grapes.
Harvesting also plays a role in how Chardonnay is made, as grapes lose their acidity and gain sugar the longer they stay on the vine. This is because photosynthesis gradually adds natural sugar to grapes while consuming natural acids, meaning that early harvest Chardonnays are more astringent while later harvest bottles are sweeter.
Once harvested the grapes are juiced and fermented the same as other wines, using yeast to convert sugar into alcohol. Aging is where variety is brought back into the process as there are a number of techniques to age Chardonnay. One is to let it go through a process of secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation, which reduces acidity and mellows the wine.
If the Chardonnay is aged in an oak barrel this will also impact the final product, as oak wood releases chemicals like tannins that alter the body and flavor of wine. Oaked Chardonnays are almost like liquid desserts with a creamy, buttery texture and strong notes of sweetness in their flavor.
Why are Wines Aged?
It is also important to understand how aging effects wine and why people age wines beyond the initial fermentation and settling period.
Aging in wine refers to any chemical reactions that occur after the wine has been fermented and bottled but before it is opened and consumed. There are many reactions that can occur in a bottle of wine even after it is sealed, and each of these reactions has a different effect on the stored wine.
Most wineries will partially age their wine so that it reaches a stage of maturation, where the wine has aged sufficiently to balance the natural traits of the finished product. After this point most wines only receive minor benefits from aging, but some are genuinely improved by additional aging.
As wines age they also begin to lose their original grape and yeast heavy aromas, which blend into more pleasant yet complex varietals. Some wines can even develop new aromas through aging, as reactions in the bottled wine create new scents in the bottle. This means that wines generally develop a more pleasant bouquet the longer they age.
Another effect of aging that can be a positive or negative, depending on personal preference, is changes in color. Sealed wines tend to fade in color as they age, growing lighter and paler over time as the chemicals that create color are consumed. If you enjoy the look of lighter wines aging can create a paler bottle, especially in vibrant red wines.
Of course, these positive reactions only occur if the wine being ages is properly stored and sealed. While there is little a consumer can do to reseal an improperly packaged bottle, keeping bottles in a cool, dry area will prevent the more damaging forms of aging like spoilage and rotting.
How does Aging effect Chardonnay?
In this as in most matters related to Chardonnay, how aging effects the qualities of the wine depends heavily on the other processes the wine underwent. As a general rule, most Chardonnays are aged two years before being released to shelves, although some may be aged longer, so keep this in mind when planning to age Chardonnay at home.
Chardonnay in its most natural form, without late harvesting, oak barrels, or secondary fermentation, should only be aged for another year at most before drinking, if you want to preserve the wines freshness and fruitiness. Early on these flavors are at their most potent, and any more aging will simply dull these effects and replace them with a mellower taste.
Chardonnay that has been fermented a second time should also be consumed within a year, less because this preserves the original flavor and more because the secondary fermentation limits the benefits of aging. With the malic acid in the wine already taken care of, the Chardonnay will not be mellowed or sweetened by aging.
If you decide to age a Chardonnay past one year, or have oaked Chardonnay, then you should not age beyond eight years, while three being the peak for most bottles. After three years most bottles will begin to noticeably lose their fruitiness and freshness, replacing them with nutty, mellow sweetness.
Oaked Chardonnays benefit most from this process as the additional aging enhances their natural sweetness and creaminess while allowing its bouquet to refine. Oaked wine has a particularly strong aroma and without additional aging it can be overpowering when initially opened, so aging creates a more complicated aroma.
After eight or more years, only well-made vintages from cold, norther regions will survive, and even then any trace of fruit or freshness will be long gone. Chardonnays aged this long, assuming they have not spoiled or died, will have an extremely nutty and toasty flavor with a creamy texture.
As a general rule, if you are looking for a crisp, tropical type of Chardonnay you should age the wine as little as possible and look for unoaked vintages. If you want a sweet and smooth dessert wine with a bit of spice, however, consider aging your wine, especially if you have selected an oaked vintage, as they benefit greatly from a bit of extra aging.
Due to the prevalence of aging in wine development and culture, questions are sometimes raised, such as: does Chardonnay get better with age?
While ‘better’ may not be the right term, Chardonnay becomes sweeter and mellower over time, peaking around three years of aging. So if you enjoy smoother, sweeter wines or if you have picked an oaked Chardonnay, aging will improve the flavor. If you prefer fresher, fruitier drinks then you should enjoy your Chardonnay within the first year of purchasing.