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Critics and older wines

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Wine lovers who go by the critics should realize that critics, even the most famous, hardly ever get to taste vertical flights. Probably 99% of what we review are new releases. This has had important consequences over the years.

Speaking for myself, I certainly get to taste a lot more older wines than most people. Not that I have a great cellar, but I get invited to a lot of events at which older wine is formally poured. And from time to time a winemaker or owner will graciously open something old.

But even if I taste, say, 200 older wines a year, it’s in a random, scattershot way. Five old Burgundies at a World of Pinot Noir lunch. Ten old Cabernets courtesy of a winery hosting a vertical. An odd old bottle of Riesling here, Pinot Noir there, an ancient Barolo, a 25-year old Champagne.

It’s all very educational, and having a sensory memory of all the older wines I’ve tasted in the last 25 years gives me some ammunition in making predictions about a wine’s ageworthiness. But I always feel guilty at how few older wines I taste, compared to the actual number of older wines I would like to, and should, taste.

It’s all a question of numbers. If I taste, let’s say, 4,500 new releases this year (and it could be more than that), that averages out to more than a dozen wines a day. Every day. I’m talking 24/7/365. Now, limiting the field strictly to California, how many wineries do you suppose there are that make wines considered “ageworthy”? This is off the top of my head, because I never sat down to actually work it, but let’s estimate there are 75 Napa Cabernet houses. Any one of them might produce multiple bottlings, though; for instance, yesterday I reviewed a bunch of Flora Springs Cabs and they had at least 5 different ones, all of which seemed ageable. So there could be many, many hundreds of individual Napa Cabernet bottlings that one could set up vertical tastings for.

Then there’s Pinot Noir. Think of all the great Pinot houses, from Santa Rita Hills up through SLO county, Santa Lucia Highlands, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma Coast, Russian River and Anderson Valley! Probably at least another 50 wineries, and you know how many of them love to bottle as many single vineyard wines as they can get their hands on. So many more hundreds of possible verticals.

We haven’t even gotten to Syrah, Zinfandel, red Rhône blends, Petite Sirah, am I forgetting any other reds? Fortunately, I think we can all agree the number of ageable California whites is negligible. But what about sparkling wine?

And then, how many years do you go back? A winery like Joseph Swan can do 40 years of verticals. Hanzell, even longer. Rochioli must be able to go back 25 years. How about all those old Sanford & Benedict wines that span about 40 years? Beaulieu Private Reserve Cabs? That’s about 75 years. Mondavi? 45 years. And so on and so forth and still counting. Add them all up, people, and you have thousands upon thousands of older wines, an impossible number from a time management point of view.

And even if you could add more hours to the day for vertical tasting, where are you going to get the wines? You have to depend on the kindness of winery owners, and a lot of them are going to refuse to open $10,000 or $25,000 worth of library wine just to satisfy your curiosity.

By the way, another consequence of critics tasting mostly newer wines is that we critics develop a palate for freshness and fruitiness. That has helped drive the style of today’s riper wines.

Beyond my feeling sad and frustrated that I can’t taste more older wine, there’s yet another consequence of practical importance to readers. When you see a critic saying when the wine should be ready, raise a skeptical eyebrow. Most of these estimates are pure fiction. They are literally made up out of thin air. Mr. Parker is most infamous for tasting a young Cabernet and giving it a 25 year lifespan, but he’s not the only one. That’s why I have pulled in my window of ageability on all but the rarest and most exceptional California wines. For Pinot, I’m good with 6-8 years. For Cabernet, I can maybe stretch it to ten years. But how I am supposed to advise a reader to hold a Cabernet from “XYZ” Winery for 20-25 years when I’ve never had an older bottle of it? I couldn’t do that in good faith.

So keep that in mind whenever you read aging predictions. I will add this: I’m jealous of Parker’s new job of tasting older wines. As he wrote to his online subscribers:

I will turn to something I have long played around with in The Wine Advocate but have rarely had enough time to do. Older readers may remember the vintage retrospectives called “What About Now?” With Antonio turning his attention to California, I am going to begin a series of horizontal and vertical tastings of perfectly stored California wines that will give readers insight into how they are developing. It has been a long-term ambition of mine to include more reports on older vintages, and this change will allow me to do this not only in California, but also to increase the older vintage reports for Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley.

He’s a lucky guy to now be able to do that. But he may in fact be the only critic on Earth in that position.

  1. Honest, self-aware, insightful. This is an outstanding post and an important reminder to always try to know what we don’t know. Which is a lot.

  2. James McCann says:

    Great post, my favorite in months. While I have some older wines in my cellar, and get to taste more because I am in the industry, I often find myself more in a state of increased confusion as opposed to clarity when I drink an older bottle.

    Usually, it goes this way… “I has this bottle 10 years ago, and thought it had a long life ahead, but unfortunately, it didn’t.”

    I think part of the problem is that critics most often taste older wines at the winery where they have sat undisturbed for a decade or two, whereas other bottles in the market may have unkown provenance.

  3. David Cole says:

    Great job Steve! I agree with you, but MOST wine drinkers don’t hold wines for 10 plus years. All the stats and my own surveys say so. I am one that does and I know there are others, so we are an exception to the norm. With that I think the most important thing you said was:

    By the way, another consequence of critics tasting mostly newer wines is that we critics develop a palate for freshness and fruitiness. That has helped drive the style of today’s riper wines.

    And I think that is true. Look at wines that have done really well like Prisoner, no terrior there, just great wine making and blending. So as much as wine geeks want to make wines that age, that style isn’t what’s selling and hasn’t been for the last 8-10 years.

    Thanks again for the great blog!

  4. Coincidentally, I uncorked my second to the last bottle of a 1989 Cote Rotie (Dervieux-Thaize) two nights ago and was greatly impressed with its vitality.

    No question I loved it in its youth, no question it had something special to offer in its evolved status. But I had this lingering doubt: would any of my wine enthusiast friends — who have been raised on richer/riper styles — been as taken by it as I was?

  5. Tom, that’s always the case with wine, isn’t it. So much of it is acquired taste. I used to loathe mustard. Now I love it. I wish I could have a taste of that ’89.

  6. Steve, thanks for the great post! While some in the past have bashed you for your supposed arrogance, I think it’s much more self-awareness and honesty. Techies call it WYSIWYG. I greatly appreciate your style, and I’ve learned quite a bit since discovering this blog; not only from your posts, but also from the lively discussion. So again, thanks for the honest post!

  7. Thanks Brendan.

  8. Some critics actually keep cellars so they can do vertical tastings. I do.

  9. I keep a cellar but it’s not big enough to hold 25,000 bottles!

  10. I recently had an opportunity to taste a vertical flight of wines from a winery here in southern Oregon that went back to their first commercial vintage in 2002. We then tasted 03, 04, 05, 06 and the current release of the 07 vintage. So not only did we get to see how the wines were developing but also able to see the progression of how the wines differed in style and vintage-induced variations.

    It was quite instructive, informative and definitely gave a sense of how they have developed and might continue to develop over time. I only wish more wineries would have such tastings.

    Otherwise, it’s certainly more of a “catch as catch-can” situation but it does inspire one to seek out the older wines, the more complete verticals and something with development over time. I love introducing new wine folks to the glory that can be a properly aged world class wine that has bloomed into something truly special — and watching the “light bulbs come on” as they *get it!*

  11. This is a trenchant post, but I do not worry so much over the age-worthiness of XYZ Winery Cabernet. Everyone knows that Ondine makes Zin!

  12. Vinogirl says:

    Fairly recently, I had a chance to partake in a vertical tasting at a particular Oakville winery. Their first vintage, 1982, was indeed still quaffable, whilst their 2003 had Brett. I don’t think you can compare old and young wines, they are two different creatures.

  13. One of the tenets of my wine education has been to learn what happens to wine over time. One cannot do that without tasting wines of a variety of ages. Sometimes that happens in straight vertical like one I recently had of Shafer Relentless Syrahs and another of Storybook Mountain Zinfandels and some happen randomly. Some happen with wines from my cellar and some happen with wines from elsewhere, but it does and must happen. It is an integral and mandatory part of the learning experience. And it is not done to judge 1982 against 2003. It is done for the sake of learning.

    Tasting 60 vintages of Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve may not be a precise way of judging the 2007 against the 1970, but it is a heck of a lot better than ignoring what can be gleaned by seeing how that wine has evolved both stylistically and in aging potential over the years.

  14. I didn’t say I judged the 1982 against the 2003, I merely said the ’82 was quaffable (the oldest Cal Cab I have ever had) and that the 2003 was flawed because it was contaminated with Brettanomyces. I did however say that comparing vintages is not really possible simply due to age – there are many variables that would make such an exercise futile. I enjoyed the vertical, and the 1982, because it was nothing BUT an invaluable learning experience…but then I’m just a wine enthusiast, not a self-professed wine expert. Having said that, I am going back out into my vineyard to finish pruning my Syrah as it has stopped raining…climate being one of the biggest variables in viticulture.

  15. I agree with Vinogirl. Unless you have before you an old vintage of the exact quality as the newer vintage, plus you know that the exact winemaking methods were employed, by proclaiming or expecting the future of the new vintage based on the trajectory of the older one you are simply guessing based on track record, and for that you don’t need any information at all.

  16. First off, great post Steve…as a regular “lurker”, I’m continually impressed with your insights and clarity, pls keep on truckin’.

    Regarding aged wines and critics, I agree with most of the stream here…but I would encourage wine fans to let go of comparative info regarding aging and just enjoy the ride. Part of the fun of experiencing wines along their “aging curve” is the uncertainty and mystery of this natural process…and sure, as per James shared, “wish I had opened this 5 yrs ago” is a common thought…offset by the magic of a wonderfully aged wine that becomes lush and totally balanced after a long sleep.

    I’m excited about Bob P’s shift in direction…I think it will bode well for all wine fans, as well as the industry. It will raise the appreciation for aged wines, and perhaps counter the recent trends…

    Z

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