This article is from the WineMaking FAQ, by malak@CAM.ORG (Don Buchan) with numerous contributions by others.
The first thing to remember is that wine-tasting (and therefore when a
wine is "ready") is a subjective exercise and your favourite wine is
someone else's least favourite some of the time. Everyone has a
different palate. Some like oak, some acid, some fragrance, some body.
Kit wines tend to peak at 1 year. Check that the acid balance and
tannin level are high if you want it to last longer. Many other fruit
wines peak at 3 to 5 years. Most fine wines that take time will still
usually peak long before 25 years unless tannins, acids and fruit
flavours are unusually concentrated. Red wines as a group will last much
longer than whites, of course with exceptions on either side.
Two of the easiest ways of assessing a wine's maturity are tasting the
wine at intervals and holding a bottle up to the light to assess the
wine's colour. Reds will shift from deeper reds and even purples to
orange and brick; whites will shift from straw colours to darker golds.
Acidity and astringency (the latter from tannins) will gradually
diminish with age, while fruitiness will typically diminish and give
way to more subtle and developed aromas with age, so look for
smoothness and complexity. But watch out! After a certain time, the
wine can actually get tired and move past its peak. Watch out for wines
that have a tired, thin, flabby taste. A practical way to taste over
time is to make a lot of small bottles.
You should also be careful: In the reductive environment of the bottle,
many wines develop hydrogen sulfide smells, and if it smells bad
initially, swirl the wine around in a glass. Decanting can help, but
it's tricky because you can overdo it with a delicately-balanced wine.
You should also be inspecting the corks for A) leakage B) rot, and C)
dryness. Outside development of mould is not bad, but escape of some
wine through the cork is bad.
Also, when examining the bottles in the light, check for clarity --
haziness can indicate A) protein haze B) metals casse (haze) C)
microbiological activity, or D) pectin haze. The worst of these is
microbiological activity. You should also check the ullage (fill level)
-- if that has decreased, it could indicate excessive evaporation or
leakage, which could oxidatively deteriorate the wine or indicate the
possibility of microbial infection.
Now for some tips on wine tasting, which might help you determine what
you like, and therefore impact how you make and age your wine. Deciding
what was liked about his wines was what caused the editor (and no doubt
others) to determine how he went about making his wines.
Don't mix sweet wines with dry wines unless you drink the sweet wines
Taste the wines twice or even three times and rescore them. They change
flavour on exposure to air or if they warm up.
Drink white wines cool; let red wines air out.
Find out what styles you personally like and what your friends like and
See if you can find wines that everyone likes. These are the hardest to
make and usually the best buys.
Try to agree on the cause of wines' mousy smell (bad filtration, mould
or bad corks), oxidation etc. The main thing is to not be too serious
and not to talk too much while you're tasting e.g. "Oh ... this is just
great!" Save comments till later and don't force your tastebuds on your
Have lots of chlorine free water and bits of bread or unsalted crackers
to clean your mouth between wines.
Put the bottles in brown bags until everyone has tasted. This is a lot
of fun and removes a lot of personal bias related to the label, which
has nothing to do with tasting (don't confuse this with the fact that
the label actually does contain valuable information.)