I apologize in advance for the lengthy response but this is a fantastic question and I really wanted to flesh out my answer for you and readers that are following along. You are absolutely right to realize that tasting new and developing wines is vastly different than tasting bottled wines. Especially, as wines gain bottle age, they change even further, developing secondary and tertiary “bottle bouquet” aromas. Before bottling is a whole different world. In general, over time, new wines, both red and white, increase in clarity as sediment falls out and decrease in acidity. Harshness also decreases as malolactic fermentation (MLF) occurs and dissolved carbon dioxide evolves out of the wine. Wines become rounder and more “together” in the mouth as tannins condense and fall to the bottom of the aging vessel. Aromas develop from very primary fruity and funky during fermentation to more mature and seamless aromas one associates with finished, bottled wine. The finish of a new wine tends to be shorter and the finish will lengthen as the wine ages.
Unfortunately, the only way to be able to consistently predict what a new wine will “grow up to be” is through experience. Happily, it’s a fun journey and making your own wine, tasting your friends’ projects, and doing barrel tastings at wineries, then tasting the wines when they are in bottle are all great ways to gain some valuable expertise.
Here are some more details about what to look for and when at various stages of a wine’s life, and what those attributes can tell you about the developing wine.
Fermenting wine: Newly-crushed wines have the highest amount of turbidity and sediment they ever will, due to all those bits of grape pulp and skin floating around and as such, the true color of the wine-to-be is quite masked. White wine fermentations can look brown, brownish green or even yellow-green, depending on variety. Rosé wines can look muddy-pink. Red fermentations (always with skins included) transform from a chunky pinky-green soup with brown seeds mixed in to a (usually) darker blue-red spectrum must over the course of a couple of days. Highly-colored varieties like Petite Sirah turn dark purple/blue/black within a few days of the start of fermentation whereas naturally lower-color varieties like Pinot Noir can take up to five or seven days to start looking like a red wine. Due to the turbidity and sediment, this is not a very pretty stage for any wine and it’s difficult to judge what the pressed-off and settled color will be. Again, experience working with the same grapes over many harvest seasons will help.
1-6 month old wine: Once a wine is dry and reds have been pressed off and settled, it’s easier to get a look at the color. Very young whites will still be very turbid so samples need to be centrifuged in order to really get a good look.
6-12 month old wine: Color is very stable and most reds exhibit the kind of color they’ll carry through the next five years or so. Well-settled whites will exhibit the color they’ll have for about the next two to three years; white wines oxidize and become more brown-hued after about five years in the bottle. White wines on a lees-stirring program (see page 63) will still be turbid, making color difficult to judge.
Fermenting wine: As mentioned earlier, fermentation is the most turbid a wine will be. Grape skin, pulp particles, and yeast cells all contribute to a juice or must that is impossible to see through. Don’t worry, time and gravity will take care of most if not all of this turbidity. Experienced tasters and winemakers will know but general consumers will often be very turned off by cloudy wine.
1-6 month old wine: The wine will still be very turbid, especially if ML fermentation happens and the weather is cold; suspended bacterial cells will continue to make the wine appear cloudy or hazy.
6-12 month old wine: Wine should be “falling bright” as gravity causes particulate matter to fall to the bottom of the barrel. It’s still unlikely the wine will be completely clear at this point, especially if lees are kicked up due to purposeful lees stirring or even during routine monthly sulfur dioxide additions and topping.
Fermenting wine: This is a fun stage to experience as many ranges of smells from fabulous (think loads of fruit boiling out of the fermenter) to funky (think of a microbial house party with wildly reproducing yeast and bacteria). The finished wine smells almost nothing like a wine during active fermentation.
1-6 month old wine: Experienced tasters and winemakers know what to look for but general consumers are often very put off by wines at this stage. Malolactic fermentation can confuse and obfuscate positive and typical finished wine aromas. Compounds like hydrogen sulfide (rotten eggs) or other sulfur-containing compounds can contribute to a reduced (slight hydrogen sulfide) aroma during the early stages of a wine’s life. Carbon dioxide gas from secondary fermentation or retained in the liquid phase can make one’s nose “burn” when CO2 gas is released upon swirling the glass, exacerbating the potential unpleasant sensation of smelling really young wine. This is a very awkward stage for most wines.
6-12 month old wine: The wine will only now begin to take on more of the character of finished product. The longer malolactic fermentation goes on, the younger and more unfinished the wine will seem. This is because the dissolved carbon dioxide and reproducing bacteria will keep it in a fermentative and unsettled state. In later months, the wine is “growing up” and turning slowly into what it will be in the bottle. Aromas go from fresh and very fruity to more complex and integrated, especially if oak extraction is involved. In barrel-aged red wines, look for vanilla, clove, leather, and black tea notes beginning to make an appearance. Aromas may still seem sharp and fruit characteristics may be more raspberry and strawberry rather than black currant and blackberry.
Taste, Mouthfeel and Finish
Fermenting wine: As in the Aroma category, this is a really adventurous stage to taste! You’ll get sweet, sour, and everything in between as the yeast turn the grape sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide. As you might expect, wine during primary and secondary (malolactic fermentation) can carry a large amount of dissolved carbon dioxide gas, such that it will feel harsh on the palate and not smooth at all. Be sure to spit at this stage because fermenting wine, if swallowed in quantity, can really wreak havoc with the digestive system. Wine isn’t poisonous at this stage of course, just very acidic and full of lots of microbes that may or may not sit well with your tummy.
1-6 month old wine: If the wine is going through MLF, it will still taste sour at this stage, though now the sugar is most likely all gone and alcohol has come into the equation. When tasting at this stage you really have to use your imagination, to mentally remove the spritziness on your tongue and the sharpness of malic acid that still may be there. The wine will taste disjointed, as if the parts have not really begun to hang together yet. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to try to get a sense of what a wine will become at this time. At six months, the barrel, especially if new wood, will have begun to make its presence felt.
6-12 month old wine: By now the elements that will make the final wine have begun to really come together. Because so much has “settled down” (carbon dioxide levels have subsided, malolactic fermentation is over, etc.) it’s easier to pick out the elements that will stay with the wine as it ages further as it’s bottled and bottle-aged. The wine will feel smoother in the mouth. The finish will start to lengthen, though it’s nowhere near what it will be at 18 months to two years.
At these early stages in a wine’s life there still may be a lack of richness, satisfaction, and the pleasure you associate with appreciating a wine that’s been in the bottle for five years. These consumer traits will sometimes seem far to find. Don’t lose heart! With every wine you take care of from start to finish, you’re laying the foundation of experience that is critical to being able to assess a wine from its inception to its final form. Be sure to take as detailed notes as you can along the way. It’s a journey, not a destination, for both you and your treasured wine.