Wine is a living thing; just like the people in the picture above (thanks to all-free-download.com), it has a youth, a middle period when it’s in its prime and an old age. And, depending on the wine, that lifespan can range from as little as a year, as in a Beaujolais Nouveau, to several decades or even longer for a fine Bordeaux or Rhône.
But, once you open a bottle, the wine will start to change – for better or worse – as a result of the wine coming into contact with the air. So, a very old wine may have become quite fragile over its lifetime and will only show its character for a few minutes once uncorked and poured into your glass before moving to a sad, vinegary end. At the other extreme, a young, tannic red may be completely ‘closed’ at first – lacking in any smell or much taste – until it is decanted, which exposes it to lots of air and brings out the flavours that were initially hidden. In a few cases, like some Portuguese wines, this process may take up to 24 hours, but it’s worth it.
But a young white I opened recently surprised me. At first, it made pleasant, easy drinking as an aperitif and continued very attractively accompanying our meal. But, there was some left in my glass at the end of dinner that (unusually) I forgot about and, when I went back to it a couple of hours later, the wine had noticeably darkened in colour and, in my wife’s words, ‘it has fallen apart’. This described perfectly what we were now tasting: the wine had become oxidized, with that distinctive sherry-like taste, the acidity had become far more prominent and sharper and, although alcohol has no actual taste, you could clearly detect the alcohol on the wine that had not been noticeable earlier.
The reason for the change? I suspect a spoiling bacteria called acetobacter – the same rogue I mentioned earlier responsible for turning an old wine into vinegar. But, it is very rare for this change to happen so quickly in a young wine. Although the winemaking may have been at fault, acetobacter thrives in high temperatures and, more likely is that, somewhere on its way to me, this bottle had been kept in an overheated warehouse. A disappointing finish, but most of the bottle was very drinkable.