Two Buck Chuck doesn’t exactly have a reputation for aging. While arguably the most well-known wine in America, Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wine is more often the target of lampoons than accolades among the wine-drinking set. To be honest, I think they overdo it. The fact is, millions of drinkers enjoy Charles Shaw wines, and for that reason alone it deserves more street cred than it gets. These wines provide an entry into the wine world that keeps wine industry folk (yours truly included) employed. I also happen to have a higher opinion of the libation’s taste than others. Two Buck Chuck is a reliable, widely available easy-drinking red. And it tastes pretty good with takeout pizza, too!
But even a fan like me can admit that Two Buck Chuck, like most wine in the $2 price range, is typically enjoyed within a few hours of purchase. The practices that treat wine to age, like natural cork seals and new oak, are not utilized with most inexpensive wines, which won’t be cellared. Most wine treated to age is expensive, which makes it hard to discover what all the fuss is about, even if you have an above-average wine budget. What the salespeople won’t tell you is that you can experience how wine ages with inexpensive bottles, too.
What you will find is that all wine sealed with a cork will actually age. Its flavors and aromas change significantly over time, whether it’s a $2 bottle or a $2,000 bottle. And as air moves in and out through the cork, it chemically alters the flavor compounds significantly; time can convert pucker-inducing tannins and big fruit flavors into a wine that feels like velvet on your tongue and smells more like earthy perfume than any type of fruit.
In fact, you can even use a wine as humble as Two Buck Chuck to taste the effects of aging on wine, for a whopping $5-$15 investment. Go buy an inexpensive red like Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon, Crosby Cabernet or Bogle Merlot and then hunt for the oldest bottle of red you can find, in your mom’s basement maybe, or the dusty bottom shelf of a bodega. Grab two glasses, fill one with each wine, and get ready to see, smell, and taste the transition.
Recently, I was gifted a bottle of 2002 Charles Shaw Cabernet, which is still valued at $2. I was eager to compare this 14-year-old bottle with its two-year-old counterpart and test the theory on how cheap wine ages, so I performed the Two Buck Chuck wine aging experiment myself. My findings were surprising! Here’s what I found (Two Buck Chuck Haters, I’m ready for your wrath):
As red wine ages, its color goes from deep red or purple to lighter shades of red and eventually brown. White wines follow an opposite trajectory as they age, turning golden and then brown. Brown wine is like yellow snow; you shouldn’t drink it, as a brown color indicates a wine has oxidized completely and won’t taste good.
Color-wise, the transition was clear between the two Chucks I was tasting. My 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon was deep purple and totally opaque. Next to the 2002, there was a stark difference; the old wine was more red than purple, and I could see through the edge. Happily, it wasn’t brown.
At bottling, most wines burst with fresh, fruity aromatics. In the wine biz, we call these “primary” aromas. All the phrases on back labels and store displays (“ripe boysenberry,” “rich cherry,” “fresh plum”) are primary aromas.
Over time, as oxygen interacts with these compounds, the fresh-fruit scents give way to secondary, non-fruit aromas. Leather, tobacco, dried flowers, cooked or dried fruit, and raisins are the most common secondary aromas in red wine.
As you would expect, Two Buck Chuck (and most red wines for under $10) explode with fruit flavors and bold oaky scents. My 2014 Chuck was full of black fruit aromas: blackberry, black cherry, plum, cassis, and loads of vanilla. It smelled pretty pleasant, and like I should be sitting down to a steak or a burger.
By comparison, the 2002 was much more mild; I really had to look for the aromas in this wine. There was a lot of dried fruit and some herbs here, and it was definitely less intense than the current release. As secondary aromatics replace fruity flavors, wines often become less vibrant and more muted, so the 2002 was going through a typical aging transition.
As aromas mellow, so do flavors and tannin in wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example is punchy, bold, and tannic upon release. Ten years later, those mouth-drying tannins mostly disappear, and big flavors like plum or cassis soften out in the same fashion, trading fresh fruit for earthy, cooked, and dried flavors. In bottles that are earthy and spicy from the start, those flavors continue to evolve as fruitiness disappears.
The 2014 Cab certainly had tannins, really drying my mouth out as I sipped. The same flavors I’d smelled — blackberry, cassis, plum — were lively and powerful on the palate.
The 2002, on the other hand, was subdued on the palate. There wasn’t much fruit flavor, just some dried cherry and fig. The tannins were nonexistent. This was a mellow, simple, pleasant red wine, something I imagine Carson serving the servants on Downton Abbey, but not the noble family upstairs.
I actually ended up preferring the current Two Buck Chuck release over its mellowed-out cousin, precisely because the effects of aging were so apparent. The experiment showed the process of aging so starkly, and also why some wines are more fit to age than others. As with any wine tasting adventure, it’s most important to decide if you like a wine — expensive and aged, or young and fresh — than to blindly follow the hype. Every wine and every transition will be slightly different, so follow your palate wherever that takes you.
Are you ready to try the Two Buck Chuck experiment, or have you already? Let me know how it goes in the comments, and remember: don’t drink brown wine.