07/19/2011 10:02 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2011

Time in a Bottle: A Quick Shorthand for Cellar-Aging Wine

Although the image of an old bottle of wine, crusted with cellar age-label peeling off-is a romantic one, the perception that all wine-or even most wine-needs years of aging is an incorrect one. "How long should I age this?" is one of the most common questions wine makers and sellers are asked and it's also among the more pointless ones.

While all wine benefits from a few months of rest after bottling to recover from the trauma of the sudden oxygenation, sulfur dosage and rough handling that accompanies the bottling process -- the so called "bottle shock -- most of the world's wines are ready to drink when they hit the shelves, or a few months after.

So what wines should you age?

Most white wine is meant to be consumed within the year the vintage is current. Typically this would mean drinking a 2010 white wine in 2011, although some 2011 white wines from the Southern Hemisphere, due to its inverted growing season, will be available late this year. There are exceptions -- most classified-growth white Burgundy continues to evolve for 3-5 years after bottling and the same can be said for high-acid whites like Riesling, Albarino/Alvarinho, and Gruner Veltliner from better vineyard sites.

There are also a small handful of white wines that are meant to age for a decade or more. These are typically either sweeter wines like German Riesling and Chenin Blanc from Vouvray in France or white wines which spend several years in oak and are deliberately partially oxidized: white Riojas, the Garrafeira whites from Portugal and the weirdly delicious wines from Jura, France.

Altogether, those age-worthy white wines represent a tiny percentage of white wine produced in the world. Hanging on to that bottle of Woodbridge Chardonnay for 10 years won't make it any better -- might not make it any worse, though.

(As an aside, I should note that what most of these white wines do is evolve rather than improve. They'll be different and present new flavors and aromas with time but that evolution is merely interesting and not necessarily an improvement. The complex petrol, honey and cooked apricot notes of a 20 year-old Riesling are interesting, but a fresh, bright and acidic young Riesling is delicious too.)

Red wines need to spend more time in the bottle, but thankfully most producers -- except the French and Napa Valley Cab growers -- generally hold their wines back for release until they are ready to be consumed. In the rush for cash, the French often release their reds too early -- especially the Burgundies -- and you'd be hard pressed to find a premium Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet that wouldn't benefit from at least two, three or a dozen more years in the bottle. Compare that to the Gran Reservas from Rioja, Spain where many producers' current releases are the 2001 vintage.

Since one of the most important chemical processes that takes place in the aging of wine is the one by which tannin binds with pigment and forms a precipitate, the more tannic the varietals are in a wine, the more they benefit from bottle aging. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tannat -- and blends built on those grapes -- will benefit from extra time in your cellar. Tannins will mellow and more fruit and spice will emerge. Fruitier grapes -- Zinfandel, Garnacha -- don't need as much time, since the fruit flavors will start to dissipate with age. And while few red wines will be harmed by an extra 2-4 years in the bottle, few-even very expensive ones -- will benefit from any more than an extra 5 or so years' wait after release. The exceptions that prove the rule -- those wines that do need 15 years or more -- are almost invariably ultra-premium and very rare.

And of course there are numerous exceptions to all of the above statements -- Garnacha (Grenache), while generally short-lived, also forms the backbone of the wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France's Southern Rhone Valley and the best examples can improve for a dozen years or more. Viognier is almost universally regarded as a white wine meant to be drunk within a year or two of bottling, but Chateau-Grillet in the Northern Rhone produces Viognier meant to age for 10 years or more.

But speaking to the every day wine consumer, if your white wine's vintage is within 1-2 years of 2011 and your red wine vintage is within 3-4 years of 2011, drink it. For a wine you find particularly interesting, do what I do: buy three bottles and drink one now, drink one a year from now, and save one for a special dinner several years down the road.

Here are some reasonably-priced wines that are worth aging a few extra years if you're curious:

Whites: Oak-aged white Riojas, Chablis (Burgundy), old-vine Albarino/Alvarinho, old-vine Gruner Veltliner, Northern California Gewurztraminer, Dry Furmint from Hungary.

Red: Rioja Crianza and Reserva, cool-climate California Zinfandel, Sonoma County Petite Sirah, old-vine Languedoc-Roussillon wines.

Those lists are by no means all-inclusive. What are your experiences, both good and bad, with cellar aging wine at home?