Terry Theise on What Happens to Wine as it Ages

Editor's Note: We've been chatting a bunch lately about which wines age well, and which wines we should buy to drink ten or fifteen or twenty years down the road. We've had tips from Carla Rzeszewski of The Spotted Pig and more advice from Christy Frank, owner of Frankly Wines in Tribeca. Today, we're checking in with famed wine importer (and friend of the site) Terry Theise. He's known for bringing small-production wines from Germany, Austria, and the Champagne region of France to the US, so he knows a thing or two about how these bottles taste as time goes by. Take it away, Terry!


[Photos: Theise portrait, Daniel Lerner. Wine glass, Vestman on Flickr]

What happens to Champagne as it ages?

I would say that aged Champagne reverts back to its essential wine. Obviously everything I'm saying applies only to good age-worthy Champagne, but these are more common than people suppose. Champagne is basically a northern European wine—it grows at 49ºN—and also a wine grown on a poor soil. So it has the basic stability to go the distance, in terms of pH and acidity.

Old Champagne, by which I mean something at least 15 years past disgorgement, acquires all of the complex esters and aldehydes that Riesling or Chenin (among others) do, and its own particular flavors run toward nut-butters and smoke and fresh sweet shellfish and espresso and white chocolate and truffles. The exception is late-disgorged wines, which should be drunk within a couple years after release. Finally, even a good NV from a conscientious grower (or artisan-minded house) will reward 5-8 years of aging. You get twice the wine you paid for; it improves that much.

And what happens to riesling?

Riesling is first among equals among the white grapes that age astonishingly. It undergoes a metamorphosis, almost literally. Mature Riesling barely resembles its younger self. If you were an alien and some earthling showed you first a butterfly and then a caterpillar, and said true or false, this creature came from that one, I doubt you would infer it. Mature Riesling becomes, simply, the world's most complex wine.

It takes a lot of time, and there's a wonderful stage where tertiary flavors have arrived yet the wine is still youthful and lively. A Mosel Spätlese with even moderate pedigree will reach that stage (assuming proper handling and storage) at about 14-20 years old. The flavors themselves are nearly impossible to describe. And they differ according to terroir. Finally, all things being equal, a sweeter Riesling will age better than a drier one, because among the various wine components, fructose is the slowest one to age.

Tell us this: why drink old wine?

The self-evident answer is you drink old wines because you like them. I myself think it's something more than that. Old wine offers us flavors we cannot taste any other way, in any other form, and in that sense it extends the very essence of what we can know about flavor itself. Also, old wine is uniquely evocative and atmospheric and fascinating; it's like music in that respect. It makes you feel most deeply and fundamentally human. It can also show you otherwise elusive things about the nature of time.

But a footnote is in order. We have wines that keep but don't really age, i.e., they stay fresh, they taste about the same at ten years as they did at the beginning. That's nice, but it isn't what we're talking about here. Other wines may change a little, shedding excess tannin for example, and while this is desirable it's not especially precious. We're looking for wines that undergo a sort of apotheosis, wines that seem to change their entire mode of being.

How does bottle age affect how wine complements food?

Though it's often said that old wines are more flexible and harmonious at the table, and though I've often found this to be true, just as often the wine alone is so spellbinding that I don't want any distractions from it. I'm not one of those people who gets to drink old wine all the time, so when I do it's usually the center of attention.

About the Author: Terry Theise won the 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional. He imports artisanal small-production wine from Germany, Austria, and Champagne, and is the author of Reading Between the Wines.

More from Terry Theise

On the Price of Wine, Part 1
On the Price of Wine, Part 2
On What To Say to a Sommelier
A Unique Frustration in Wine