The unique qualities of older vintages aren’t apparent, so let an expert’s insight guide you.

Old wines hold a certain mystery. With their dusty labels, shelved away in chilly cellars, their allure is in the rediscovery. Like a message in a bottle (quite literally), the value of the contents has as much to do with its transformation as with the grapes it came from. Sommeliers wax poetic about a certain vintage having a “good year,” recalling that summer’s weather conditions and the perfect harvest.

But what turns out to be a “good year” for older wines can be deceiving. Wines that age well don’t necessarily start out with the most popular attributes.

Once a wine is over 10 years old, different rules apply to tasting, purchasing and drinking. First of all, weather and growing conditions that allow a wine to age well are not the same as those that benefit a good young one. Ludwig Köstler of Vinothek St. Stephan says that this can lead to a misguided buying frenzy. “Often, when the media goes crazy about a fantastic wine growing season, people start buying up that year and stockpiling. But it’s often the years in which the weather isn’t as good and the grapes ripen later that will produce an excellent older wine.”

Manfred Winkler, wine tasting judge and professor of food technology, explains this contradiction: “Wine needs a high acidity to be able to hold its flavor and stability over the years. And the longer the grapes are on the vine, the better.”

Ripening early means a high sugar content that makes for excellent young wines, but higher acidity is what makes it possible for wine to maintain its chemical integrity over decades. The burgunder types, chardonnays and veltliners have full-bodied flavor profiles and are well suited for ageing, whereas lighter, more fruity wines will break down quickly, losing the sprightly essence that make them so enjoyable.

Wisdom Before age

Drinking older wines takes some getting used to. Flavors differ from younger wines, and here in Austria locals prefer their Heuriger (this year’s wine, as well as the place where they sell it). Köstler notes that tourists are more interested in his older vintages than the natives are.

Buying your first aged wine requires a little research, and finding a trusted wine merchant with a good inventory who can advise you is vital. Beware of sellers who emphasize brand names and well-known vintages. If the bottle is an investment, the name may carry weight, but your taste buds might not thank you. Blind tastings often put lesser-known labels on top, and a good Vinothek gives advice based on the quality of a wine and not it’s vineyard. Old wines needn’t necessarily break the bank, says Köstler.

The first question he asks customers when they express interest in old wines is what type of wines and spirits they enjoy now. If you enjoy port or sherry, then older wines might be just the ticket. If you prefer lighter muskatellers and fruity wines, partaking in older vintages may be a disappointing endeavor.

Once you’ve selected and purchased your wine, bring it home, and let it rest for as long as possible – experts recommend at least six weeks, if you can be patient. As with people, jostling and temperature fluctuations don’t become these fragile older wines. They need some time to settle before they can taste their best. If you’re saving the bottle for a special occasion, old wines need to be stored in a cool, dark place, as UV rays break down organic compounds and acids much too quickly. When the time comes to uncork, seniors benefit from being decanted and must be enjoyed within a few hours, so be sure to give your mature dinner guest the full attention they deserve.