The majority of wines spend most of their lives in a bottle, but what happens to it there is a cross between a chemistry project and a Harry potter film – part science, part magic.

Some weeks ago our annual shipment of samples from that most exalted of wine regions Bordeaux, in south west France, almost filled our modest offices here on the Blickling Estate. Such samples have been arriving in England, albeit in barrels, since the Plantagenet period when Bordeaux was granted to Henry II in 1152 as part of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s dowry (later to be lost in 1453 after the 100 years war). What a dowry, the most famous and the most expensive wine region in the world, now producing in excess of 500 million bottles each harvest from the Gironde départment around the rivers of the Dordogne and the Garonne.

We always cellar small parcels of the five famous ‘first growths’ from the 1855 classification, namely; Lafitte, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild, but for over half the regions in the area, wine only qualifies for the more modest appellation known as AC Bordeaux. Within this category wines range from the mediocre and occasionally vapid to the pre-eminent and delicious – these are reds we can afford to drink on a day-to-day basis.

We operate a system in our office where every willing member of staff (we’ve never had anyone refuse this particular fence) samples the wine and offers an opinion. Lots of sniffing, slurping and spitting ensues (well not a lot of spitting to be honest) and a discussion as to the wine’s merit is obligatory. When a wine hits the mark there is generally universal agreement among us, as there is when a wine is poor and uninteresting.

What is more difficult is the judgement of a wine’s potential. A common cry of “infanticide” greets a wine that is still in its adolescence, still showing lack of balance, still to mature. That’s the easy bit. Whether it will mature to greater heights and, if so when, are issues that tax a merchant selling such potential treasures.  Drink the wine too early and all that is delivered are the primary fruit flavours often overcome by that harsh stewed tea taste of sharp-edged tannins. Drink it too late and the fruit will have disappeared, leaving only the ghostly and unappetising shadow of the former wine.

In addition to such opinions, is when the wine during its organic little journey enters a ‘dumb’ period.  So what is going on?

Well the chemical theory is straightforward. Polyphenols (flavour compounds, pigments and tannins) interact with oxygen, alcohol and acids within the wine. Phenolic elements in a red wine offer the most material factors in a wine’s journey. These come in the form of colour pigments from the skins of the grape, and tannins, a precursor of the wine’s final ‘structure’ and nature’s little preservative coming from pips and stalks as well as skin.

In general, and most particularly in the muscular wines of Bordeaux, wines with a deep inky colour and condensed poly-phenols have a fighting chance of a glorious future.

But first we must step back to celebrate the role of the viticulturist. He or she is the person who cultivates the grapes, tends the vineyard so to speak, because what happens here governs the final outcome. It will be obvious to any amateur horticulturalist, of tomatoes for example, that more fruit often equals less taste.  A vine cannot bequest the same level of phenolic intensity to twenty bunches of grapes than it can to five.

Step forward our next player, the viniculturalist. This mythical being, of somewhat more reserved stature in France than in the New World, can intercede in a poor harvest and magnify a great one. Tools of the trade can include length and temperature of fermentation to extract tannins and amounts of sulphur dioxide added to wine to prevent harmful oxidation and oak ageing.  Oak barrels, and particularly new oak casks, add tannin during the ageing process, increase longevity and stabilise the colour, later to be bottled in green rather than clear glass to help maintain the pigments.

So from vineyard (terroir)  to manufacture, a myriad combination of events determine a wine’s future and understanding these events helps to educate our perception of a wine’s taste at a particular point in time and assists the anticipation of things to come.

Knowing when wine has peaked is invariably in the realm of magic as one never knows such a fixed point until the wine shows traces of decline and the peak has passed.

Bordeaux wines, or claret as the English decided to call it, have a propensity to age for ten, fifteen, twenty years, so sampling a particular vintage every year or so will help you track progress.

Most of the mystique of wine then will at least have an upside and perhaps, if you choose not to consume all you buy, your bank balance may be slightly improved as the years unfold. Which is more than I can say of the science and magic I have followed in the recent stock market movements, whereas understanding, consumption and eventual investment in nature’s futures’ market may provide additional enjoyment and excitement in equal measure year upon year.