It can be really hard to tell when a wine is ready to drink. Even experts get it wrong frequently. What I have put together in this post are some general guidelines that can help.
Rosé is one of the easiest wines to know. Almost all of them are ready to drink when they are released. Very few of them improve with age. So drink them when you get them or in a year or two at most.
Most white wines are ready to drink when they are released but some will improve with age. Rieslings and Chardonnays frequently improved with age. Some Rieslings can last decades. I have had 15 year old white Burgundy’s (made with Chardonnay) that were fantastic. In my experience white wines that have a bit of residual sugar, such as those from Alsace, also tend to age well. That said, even within these varieties most white wines are made to be opened within five or so years.
There are some white wines that are best within one to three years. Viognier is known to be a bit delicate for aging. Most Sauvignon Blanc’s do not benefit from aging. Almost all of the Italian white wines are made to be drunk fairly young.
Red wines are much trickier. Some are ready to drink when released but even than they may benefit from a few years more age. Many reds are released before they are ready to drink. In general the more tannic varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Nebbiolo need some additional time. Softer varieties such as Merlot are frequently made for faster consumption. It used to be recommended that wines with higher alcohol levels, 14% and up, needed to age. With the steady rise in alcohol content over the last several years that is no longer a good gauge. It is true that more alcohol does make it less likely that a wine will go bad if it is aged. It does not mean it will improve.
Dessert wines such as Sauternes and ice wines tend to age well. Fortified wines such as Port and Sherry keep well for very long periods of time but don’t normally improve with time.
A quick note; and here I am treading on thin ice, inexpensive wines are more likely to have been bottled with the intent of quick consumption than more expensive wines. That said, many inexpensive red wines are released too young. If you have the ability to store them properly, they can mature into wines that make you congratulate yourself for having bought them at such a low price.
One of the pleasures of wine is to buy a case and drink the wine over time experiencing the changes that a wine goes through. The beginning of the case may be too young, and the end over the hill. Still you will gain the experience of knowing how a wine matures. With a little luck you will have had the majority of the wine at its peak.