Does Wine Need to Age?
Modern society loves new things. The latest smartphone, the current fashion, the new movie release, we all want to be up to date and fresh.
But fresh isn't always better. On the other hand, it isn't necessarily worse. Fresh is just 'fresh' and quality comes from other sources than mere newness or novelty. Pop culture has a clichéd attitude about wine age, with mawkish devotion to ancient vintages, and rich-but-foolish people pay fortunes for very old bottles of wine (which are not infrequently counterfeit). Aged and mature isn't always a positive quality: after all, it might just mean that something has been lousy for a really long time!
One thing that home winemakers get that their civilian counterparts rarely experience is the flavour of very young wine, and the zesty freshness that it brings. In the commercial world only Beaujolais Nouveau and some niche traditional wines (Strohwein in Germany, for one) are ever drank less than a year old.
Home winemakers, with their exposure to Vandergrift's First Law (Consumption will rise to meet all available sources of wine) often drink their bottles less than six or eight weeks after the yeast was pitched. Sadly, some of them feel like they're missing out because they don't have a cellar full of wines that have been ageing and improving for many years (they don't stop, they just fret about it)
I say relax! Here's something the local wine merchant won't publicise: very few wines under $50 taste better after more than a year in the bottle. People don't pay stupid money for vintage wine because it somehow got divinely better after fifty or a hundred years in the cellar--they buy it because after five decades most of it's gone, so the remaining bottles are rare and the price has gone up. At best, a 50 year-old bottle of wine might be acceptably drinkable as a historical curiosity, but it won't be a magical flavor experience--and that's if it's been stored in perfect conditions, and not in the hall closet under the galoshes and tennis rackets.
If you have a decent cellaring situation (dark, cool, steady temperature below 70F with decent humidity) your Master Vintner wines are going to age and improve for a year or so, especially the reds, which need just a bit of time for the tannins to integrate and round out with the fruit. Whites smooth out as well, although not quite as dramatically as reds do.
But it's just as fun to drink fresh, zippy, young wines, bursting with juiciness and fruitiness that will remind you of why you drink wine in the first place: it tastes good! Last summer I was asked if I had any wine for a garden party. The only thing I had on hand was a Master Vintner Moscato that had just finished clearing, and was only six weeks old. I didn't even bottle it, but rather racked it into a keg and served it on draft to the party goers.
It was a huge hit, and I got more compliments on that batch of wine than I have in years, which might just prove two things: 1) people love free wine, or 2) drink your wine when you want to--it's going to be delicious fun no matter how old it is. Modern wine kits (I'm talking Master Vintner® here) and wine making kits are miracles that combine centuries of grape growing skill and accrued knowledge with advanced techniques for balancing and blending grapes and juices that allow you to make your own great wine the first time you try, and every time after that.
One of the many side benefits of making your own wine from wine kits is that they're ready to drink so soon. Commercial wines of the same quality all need a year or more in the bottle before they can be released for sale. With kits you can drink them in far less time and still have a great wine.
But how much less time? What's the minimum age? Which kits will drink the soonest? Are there any shortcuts?
The Truth About Young Wine
Any wine you enjoy drinking is ready to drink—if it tastes good to you, it is good. But my opinion is that if you're drinking anything with less than three months in the bottle you're committing Vinfanticide. There are probably a few shocked faces out there, 'You can keep a wine for three months?! How is this possible? I've never had wine last longer than three weeks in my house!' Sure, I get it: we all have wine-related emergencies in our lives.
But even though a kit is clear and ready to go into the wine bottle it's still young and jangly, and needs time to integrate flavors and aromas, and to settle down from the shaking-up it gets from being bottled. That takes anywhere from four to twelve weeks. After that it can knit up and start showing real character.
On the other hand, if you ever have aged a wine kit for a couple of years, you know that even value-priced can improve dramatically. A decade ago I forgot a bottle of Riesling I had made from an entry-level kit. When I found it again it was over six years old. I opened it, intending to find out if it had spoiled in any kind of novel way, and maybe analyze it in the lab for flaws.
It was one the most delicious wines I've ever tasted. In the cool dark of my cellar it grew into a wine of lean, racy acidity, zesty fruit and endless aromas of blossoms. Lab schmab, I drank it all with lunch and took a nap.
A Long Heritage of Unaged Wine
But this isn't about aging wine, it's about drinking it young. People have been drinking extremely young wine all throughout human history. In fact, it wasn’t until the invention of glass bottles and cork stoppers that it was possible to consistently age wine. Up until then containers like barrels, clay jugs, or poorly cured hides of a large animal (I wish I was joking) were simply places to put wine until you drank it, not places for it to attain any potential.
If you attended Sunday school you may remember the story of Roman soldiers giving Jesus vinegar to drink at Calvary. This sounds like a punishment, until you realize that the soldiers were drinking it themselves: their wine ration would have gone sour from oxidation and infection only a few weeks or months after harvest, and they just put up with it like everyone else at the time.
Which Kit Type
You're going to get the best results from the best kit, every time, so Master Vintner's Sommelier Select™ is going to taste better at any stage of development. But there's something to consider: when SS™ is fully aged, it's going to be spectacular. As soon as you taste a two or three year old bottle you'll know immediately where the extra money in that kit went.
On the other hand (and there always is one) it seems a shame to let that potential go to waste, especially if you're in a bind and need three batches of wine for a wedding in less than two months. Master Vintner's Winemakers Reserve™ is going to be pretty good that young, and since it will never see three years much less three months, you could save that cash (and make an extra batch, of course).
If you need wine on only four weeks notice, Master Vintner's Weekday Wine™ should be your go-to. All wines have one foot in a sack on bottling day (which is where four weeks gets you), but WW™ is the low-key Matthew McConaughey of wine: whatever you throw at it, it's 'All right, all right, all right' and is happy to be there. Sommelier Select will still taste better, but not as smooth or as drinkable—that's because by design they're delicious, fruity and easy to enjoy at all stages.
First, if you have a choice of color, go with white. Without the firm tannins of a red, whites are more easily approachable in youth, and even more so if they're on the fruity end of the spectrum, like Riesling, Moscato or Pinot Grigio.
If you need red, seek the lighter reds with more fruit and less tannin. Pinot Noir, Merlot, or Carménère are all smoothly drinkable and lush. An Old Vines Cabernet will age out to gorgeous power and long, rich finishes, but it's going to be a real palate-bruiser until it's had a chance to knit up—skip it, and most of the other grapeskin kits for young drinking.
The (Two) Secret(s) to Making Young Wine Drinkable Sooner
One of the things that happens to wine over medium-term aging is that extremely fine particles settle out. They're so fine that the wine can appear almost entirely clear on bottling day, but they're in suspension and they will obscure the true, clear character of the wine.
You can skip around this by using a filter on your wine. Filters remove these extremely fine particles and not only make the wine perceptibly clearer and 'diamond bright', but also help refine the flavor and reveal more of the wine's character. It is an extra step, but once you've filtered a batch of wine you'll love the way it polishes up and pops out of the glass.
The second secret is to sweeten things up. A tiny amount of Residual Sugar can smooth all of the rough edges from a young wine and make it taste 'more-ish' right out of the gate. This works even with red wines. You can grab a some Wine conditioner, which is a solution of invert sugar that (when used correctly) won't cause refermentation in the bottle. Follow the instructions, and if you're not sure about sweetening the wine, start by doing a quick trial: pull off a quart of wine and add the minimum dose (it's 1/2 ounce per quart, or 15 ml/litre). If it seems like it's the right way to go, you can dose the whole batch, or you can try a little more to see if it improves further. Don't exceed the 4 ounce/gallon mark or you could have some sediment show up in the wine.
The Secret Weapon
There's one tiny thing I left out: if you are absolutely jammed, and need wine in less than four weeks, you can still turn out a batch, and it will taste fabulous. Master Vintner Tropical Bliss™ fruit wine kits are almost always ready in just over three weeks. With a blend of fruit juices and varietal wine, they taste like a party right out of the carboy, and they go great with any occasion.
Of course, you'll need to put on a batch of that Old Vine Cabernet so that you have something to look forward to after all that Tropical Bliss is gone!