One common misconception is that old wine is good wine. People see a 2011 bottle of red wine and automatically say, “oh this must be good, its been aged 10 years.” While it could be true that the wine has aged 10 years, age alone does not equate to good wine.
First, the year on a bottle of wine represents the year that the grapes were harvested. This does not mean that the wine was made immediately after harvest, which is ideal. Due to a rise in the use of frozen grape must, winemakers are making wine well after harvest. So, technically a grape can be picked during the harvest season of one year, frozen, and then used to make wine months later. For example, a grape harvested in October 2018, can be frozen and used for winemaking in January 2019. The grapes would be 2018 grapes but technically that wine would not have been aged for three years.
Another thing to consider is the difference between barrel aging and bottle aging. Sometimes a wine is bottled, released, distributed, and simply does not sell. When this happens, that 2011 Pinot for $15 is probably not a steal. It may just be a bad batch of wine that no one else wanted for 11 years. Consequently, after bottling, it sat in some distributors warehouse or storage bay at some grocery store and collected dust. It was then dramatically marked down and put on a shelf for you, an unsuspecting customer.
This is completely different from barrel aging which is the intentional aging of wine in a wood barrel to add certain characteristics and flavors to the wine. Different barrels impart different flavors depending on a number of variables including the source of the wood, the age of the barrel, how many times its been used, and to what degree the barrel has been toasted.
The last thing to consider is that not all wine is meant to age. All wine has a lifespan. Some wine is at its best early into its lifecycle and by letting it age, you are simply missing it at its peak. Other wines need time to mature. Wines that are low in acidity and tannin are probably not going to wow you 10 years after they are bottled. Bolder and more tannic wines are your best shot at buying a wine suitable for aging. However, unfortunately, even many of these are crap shoot because what really matters are the quality of the grapes that were used when making the wine and the level of skill used in the winemaking process.
So, the next time you’re thinking of picking a 7-10 year old wine over a 2-3 year old wine based on the perceived age alone, think again!