How Long Does Red Wine Last?
At Cuvée Privée, we are often asked how long our wines will last. Frequently, on purchasing one of our vine adoption subscriptions for themselves or for a loved one, a customer asks questions regarding the storage of their wine: What temperature is best? How long does white wine last? How long does red wine last? How long should I leave this wine before drinking? Once they’re open, how long will these wines last?
Of course, the answers to these questions differ from wine to wine. To make things simple, we have collated here the fundamentals of the lifespans of different wines so that the next time you buy a bottle, be it red or white, you’ll know when it’s time to open it and when it’s time to throw it away!
How should I store my wines?
The first thing worth knowing, that will have a huge impact on their lifespans, is how to properly look after your wines. There are four fundamental factors to consider: temperature, humidity, light exposure and the position of the bottle. These factors are explained by Cuvée Privée co-founder Aurelie in a video from our “Did You Know…” series here.
- Temperature should remain constant (no big fluctuations from hot to cold or vice versa), somewhere between 12 and 13 degrees Celsius. If you are unable to keep it at this temperature specifically, simply make sure not to allow the environment to drop below -4 degrees (the freezing point of wine) or above 20 degrees, at which point the structure of flavour compounds can be compromised. At least there is a singular optimal storage temperature for all wines: serving temperatures are a whole different ball game, varying not only from red to white but from grape to grape and region to region!
- Humidity should be around 70%, to avoid the bottle’s cork from drying out, allowing oxygen to reach and damage the wine.
- Light should be as low as possible, to avoid UV rays from direct sunlight damaging flavours and aromas.
- The wine should be kept in a horizontal position: this is done for the same reason as maintaining proper humidity – wine stays in contact with the cork, maintaining a level of moisture that avoids it drying out.
There are a number of ways to ensure the above criteria are met, but the safest bet, if you own enough wine to make it worthwhile of course, is to invest in a proper wine cooling unit. These ensure proper conditions, including temperature, light, humidity and position, and are the closest you will get to owning a real wine cellar without moving house.
It’s not a cellar, but it just might do the trick!
So now we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive into the juicy stuff. How long do wines last in storage, assuming you’re looking after them properly?
How long does white wine last?
White wine, unopened and kept in the right conditions, can last almost indefinitely. A fine wine, red or white, can hold its own for decades. This being said, white wines have one notable difference compared to their red counterparts: their must (grape juice) does not come into contact with the skins, stalks and seeds of the grapes when they are pressed and fermented, or at least, not for very long. As a result, they lack polyphenols (tannins in particular, along with pigments and some flavour compounds) which are imparted by these solids, known collectively as the pomace.
Most white wines do not stay in contact with their skins after they are pressed
As a general rule of thumb, if a wine contains a lot of tannins (like many red wines do), it will age better. This is because tannins act as a preservative in wine. They also prevent oxidative damage over time and gradually form long polymeric chains with themselves, which can notably change the flavour profile of a wine – we will come on to this later. Whites however, with their lack of tannins, tend to age less well and spoil more quickly. They do have some level of protection against ageing though, that comes with acidity. A wine with a low pH will age better, as the chemical reactions that lead to wine going bad take longer in an acidic environment.
So, for a white to age well and last longer in the still-corked bottle, we’re looking for a wine with high acidity and some level of tannin or polyphenol where possible. Chardonnays are a good example of a wine like this. They are generally relatively acidic and typically undergo some degree of oak-aging in barrels; the oak contains tannin which leaches into the wine. Rieslings also famously age well, despite seldom being oaked. They owe their longevity to their notorious acidity.
With age, because of the chemical changes taking place in the wine over time (such as the aforementioned polymerisation of tannins and other phenols), a wine can be totally transformed. Take the Riesling, for example. A young Riesling will have distinct fruit flavours and a sweetness that balances its acidity: primary fruits like apricot, pear, sometimes even pineapple. By comparison, an older Riesling often shows a distinct petrol/diesel flavour. This develops as carotenoids (pigments present in the wine derived from the skin of the grape) break down in the presence of acids over time to produce a compound known as TDN (1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene), which has a notably petrol-like aroma.
Delicious! Aged Riesling tastes a little like how this picture smells… (It’s good, we promise)
So just leaving a wine to its own devices in the right conditions for long enough can totally change its flavour profile. But as mentioned, some wines that lack the preservative acidity or tannin content can change for the worse. Sauvignon Blanc for example is typically enjoyed as a young wine, due to its aromatic thiols and green aromas which render it fresh and bright. After a few years, the zesty citrus and herbaceous flavours can dwindle and instead the wine can take on a flavour akin to green peas, which most people do not enjoy.
To sum up: white wines, corked and properly stored, can last indefinitely, but most do not age as well as red wines (as they lack the tannin content and are enjoyed for their young, fresh flavours) so are best drunk within the first few years of storage. The exception lies in acidic whites with ageing potential like some Rieslings, Chardonnays and Sémillons. Bernard Neveu, Head Sommelier of Le Bristol in Paris, recommended that our Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Chardonnay, for example, could be aged for another 5 to 10 years after bottling. Dessert and botrytised whites (e.g. Sherry, Sauternes) can also age for decades, thanks to their high sugar content which acts as a preservative.
How long does red wine last?
All red wines sit in their skins (a process known as maceration) for some period of time in order to develop their red colour. Resultantly, they generally have higher tannin content than whites and are thus able to last much longer. Being resilient to spoilage over time, reds can also really benefit from an ageing period as their aroma compounds interact with one another and change causing their flavour profile to develop.
The primary fruity, grape-derived flavours fade relatively quickly during ageing. These are often caused by aroma compounds known as esters, produced by yeast during fermentation, and they can hydrolyse (break down) when left in the bottle. At the same time, new esters can form, such as isoamyl acetate (which has a pear-like aroma) and diethyl succinate (which can be tart, like stewed apples, or musty and chocolatey). Some other aroma compounds also reveal themselves in the ageing of certain wines. Norisoprenoids, for example, are initially bound to sugar molecules, and so cannot be recognised until the sugars are cleaved, which happens first in fermentation but also when a wine is aged. Once the sugar molecules come away, they become “volatile” and their aromas can be identified by the drinker. Two examples are ß-damascenone and vitispirane: these have rose-like and woody, eucalyptus-like aromas respectively. With so much chemistry going on over time, resilient red wines can develop into something truly unique and delicious if left to age. Some of the unusual flavours commonly associated with aged wines are tobacco, leather and forest-floor; typically earthier, non-fruit flavours.
The aforementioned TDN is also a norisoprenoid
There are other aspects to the wine that develop in ageing too. The most obvious is colour! “How long does a red wine last?” might be a more complicated question than it seems – your deep carmine merlot may no longer even be red in colour after 25 years, turning a brick-orange or tanned-leather brown as it transforms over time.
Finally, mouthfeel changes a great deal in ageing. This is thanks to the aforementioned polymerisation and aggregation of the tannins in the wine. Tannins are responsible for the astringency of a wine. They bind to proteins in saliva, which causes a drying sensation in the mouth, a roughness. When a wine ages and its tannins aggregate, they can become such large molecules that they are no longer able to remain in suspension in the liquid and instead sink to the bottom of the bottle as a residue. As such, the wine becomes less astringent and instead feels rounder, smoother and less grippy.
So, red wines can benefit from ageing as their flavour, colour and mouthfeel change over time. But not all reds ought to be aged – some will not get better with these changes. Acidic, full-bodied and astringent reds will benefit from ageing and, when kept properly, some can be at their best even 30 years after bottling. Some good examples are acidic Cabernet Sauvignons, Tempranillos and Nebbiolos. The Cuvée Privée adopters of Hermitage from Domaine des Remizières can enjoy a great example of a wine with wonderful ageing potential (even for a number of decades) thanks to its dense tannic body and 15 - 18 month maturation in new oak barrels. Pinot Noirs on the other hand, for example, generally tend to offer fragrant, bright red fruit flavours which will fade over time, so despite their acidity and potential for longevity, they are usually at their best within the first 5 years after the vintage date.
To sum up: technically, red wines, corked and properly stored, can last almost indefinitely. The acidic, tannic and well-balanced reds will really come to life after a good period of ageing (decades), while the fresher, light-bodied and fruity numbers, are better enjoyed sooner rather than later (within 5 years of the vintage) as their flavour profiles may change unfavourably as they age.
How long should I leave a wine open before drinking it?
Whether or not a wine needs time to breathe varies from wine to wine. Leaving a wine bottle uncorked however will not allow the wine to breathe as very little of the wine comes into contact with the air. Instead, consider decanting. One of the main reasons that wines are decanted however is not to let them breathe primarily, but rather to remove sediment or pieces of broken cork from the liquid (these accumulate near the neck of the bottle as the wine is poured into the decanter). This being said, many wines can benefit from decanting due to the aeration that the process provides. Typically, it is young, strong reds with very intense tannins that will improve with some degree of aeration (think Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon). If you were to drink these wines immediately from the bottle, you may notice that their aromas feel tight or closed. When they are poured into a decanter, they come into contact with oxygen and their flavours seem to “open up”. You may choose to decant the Cuvée Privée Crozes-Hermitage, for example, a tannic Syrah.
The shape of a decanter leaves a large surface area for the wine to come into contact with the air
However, there are many wine experts who argue a decanter is unnecessary or that it may even do more harm than good. They would suggest that swirling wine in the appropriate glass provides ample aeration for the flavours to express themselves fully. A decanter may introduce too much oxygen to the wine, particularly in the case of oxygen-sensitive, delicate old Burgundies (15 years aged or more). If you must decant one of these wines, ensure not to leave them for more than an hour. In general, whites are not decanted, as they may lose their fruit aroma intensity due to the oxygen exposure. Some exceptions are made in the case of complex, mealier whites (some Chardonnays, for example) that can open up with aeration, or indeed thanks to a slight increase in temperature from contact with the ambient air.
Regardless of the age or variety, a wine should not be left in a decanter for too long; two or three hours at most, with the exception of some aged Nebbiolos, which may need to decant for four or five hours to properly remove their sediment).
How long does a wine last once it has been opened?
If the wine is not finished when opened, it will lose its aromatic intensity within a matter of days, and soon after will oxidise and start to display vinegar-like flavours. Even after the first day, the taste will begin to notably change. To prevent the early demise of your wine, re-cork it and refrigerate as soon as possible; this may give you a few more days at most. There are other methods to preserve opened wine, including vacuum systems that remove oxygen and seal the wine for later drinking, and gas covers that enshroud the wine with a gas heavier than oxygen that forms a protective cushion against oxidation. These may also extend the lifespan of your wine by a day or two.
Ultimately though, the truth is that once you’ve opened your wine, the countdown begins. Plan ahead and make sure you’ve got the whole team on stand-by to share your next bottle with you. Make it count and don’t let it go to waste!