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Crazy about aging wine–literally


In the little guidebook published by Vibrant Rioja, their marketing arm, the Riojans say “Riojas are ready to drink when purchased. Rioja is the only wine region in the world that does not release any of their wines until they are ready to be consumed–you can pop open any bottle and drink it–no aging required!”

This no-aging-required meme, aimed at the masses, has been one of Rioja’s commercial selling points for years. It’s a good message. People are scared and confused about when to drink or not to drink a bottle of wine, and to reassure them that it doesn’t matter is pretty clever. On the other hand, I wonder if it’s working, because Rioja isn’t exactly setting America on fire, despite the fact that the wines can be fantastic and are particularly well priced compared to California and France.

The Californians actually could say the same thing, if they wanted to–that all California wines are ready to drink on release. It’s not something you can prove or disprove, it’s just a claim. Actually, there are very few California wines that require aging. Oh, I frequently will advise my readers at Wine Enthusiast to cellar a bottle of this or that for up to 8 years (I’m uncomfortable going beyond that), and every once in a while I’ll actually assign a wine a Cellar Selection designation. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t drink these wines on release. You could, and be perfectly happy.

So why don’t Californians use the “no-aging-required” strategy? If a wine is fresh and clean and inexpensive, they’ll often say something in their marketing along the lines of “Drink it now with a [fill in the blank food]” but you never see, say, a $100 Napa Valley Cabernet with a “Drink it now” message, even though most of them are just fine young (assuming they’re good wines to begin with). Nor do you necessarily see Cabernet houses (or Petite Sirah houses or even most Pinot Noir houses) saying much if anything about when to open their wines. The reason why is because they don’t want to get too far out on a limb that breaks off beneath them. If they tell you to drink their wine soon, they’re afraid people will think it’s not important and thus not worth the price, because the consumer has been trained to think an expensive wine has to age in order to be drinkable. Also, the winery might actually want their customers to cellar the wine, because they truly believe it’s ageworthy.

But if they tell their customers to stick the wine away for 8-10 years, then they’re afraid that the wine may suck when it gets old, because a lot of California wines that people hope will age don’t. They’re also afraid of putting the idea in the consumer’s mind that the wine is undrinkable young, because they know a lot of people don’t have the time or inclination to age wines. So the wineries are between a rock and a hard place. The less they say about aging, the safer they are.

Actually, when I asked the question, “So why don’t Californians use the ‘no-aging-required’ strategy?,” there’s another answer: California doesn’t have a statewide marketing order, the way the Riojans do. Four thousand California wineries couldn’t agree on which way is north, much less a unified message about something as complicated and cuckoo as ageability.

And this is why we’re all crazy about aging. Aging wine makes me crazy. Admit it: it makes you crazy too. We guess, we keep our fingers crossed, but we really don’t know, and, knowing that we don’t know, we’re reluctant to advise too strongly–at least, the more honest of us are. (Certain critics will suggest absurd windows of drinkability with the mathematical precision of a solved equation.) Aging is the third rail of California wine: nobody really wants to touch it.

  1. Sherman says:

    Anbnother part of the “aging” equation is that it requires a committment to a wine in terms of the number of bottles that few wine drinkers are willing to make.

    The commonly accepted wisdome that I’ve always read is that you should have, at a minimum, one case (12 bottles) of the wine in question. This will give you enough to open a bottle once a year to see how the wine is progressing and then have, say, 6 bottles left at the point where the wine reached “maturity.”

    Aside from the cost of buying a case of every wine that I would like to age, we then come to the issue of proper storage. Most folks don’t have enough storage space of the right conditions to house the quantities of wine that we’re talking about — dark, cool, vibration-free and the correct humidity.

    Very few wine enthusiasts have the time, resources and level of committment to properly age good wine into something transcendently special. It is a lot of work, but it can yield something truly spoecial when the wine planets align.

  2. I find wine aging slightly confounding and frustrating. I ended up just buying a wine refrigerator because I have no other ideas on how to create a good aging environment for my wines. Part of my problem is that I don’t own a house, so I can’t modify or build anything extensively and I also am young and just starting my career so chances are I will be moving several time in the next decade, so it wouldn’t be worth the effort even if I did own my home.

  3. Aging is one thing. Improvement is quite another. My biased observation is that the rich, ripe and fruity CA reds can certainly age, but I have yet to come across many that deliver the nuances of flavor and aroma that my older BDX or Cote Roties do.

  4. george kaplan says:

    Ancient scribes spoke of a mysterious quality in wine called finesse, or breed, something that lay submerged deep in the structure of the beverage, only surfacing after several years of chemistry. One doesn’t hear so much about such things nowadays( I don’t think Parker ever spoke of it at all, possibly because it cannot be referenced to lychee, or kumquat, or a whiff of late muskrat under the leaves). I think of it as a quality of interplay of textures rather than flavors, one of those ” I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it” things. Not necessarily better, but different, and maybe appealing to a different part of the brain, like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, or Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and in Suddenly Last Summer, or Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and in Robin and Marian, or 1970 Latour in 1975 or 1995, or….

  5. This is a provacative article with several great points. I did a tasting yesterday of older California Cabs and Pinots in conjunction with our upcoming Summer auction and they were all remarkable! I tasted 1987 Diamond Creek “Gravelly”, 1991 Diamond Creek “Volcanic”, 1995 and 1997 Araujo Eisele and 1999 Littorai Pinot Noir “Hirsch”.

    What they all shared was a vibrance rooted in traditional winemaking techniques and a respect for the terroir whence they sprang. I’m afraid that too many California wines are currently being made with fruit that is bascially too ripe producing alcohol levels that rival fortified wines. the other thing these wines all shared was minimal manipulation. Too many California wines are today ove-handled and over-manipulated with too much oak and malolactic fermentation for the whites.

    All of this deprives the wines of their aging potential. So the writer is basically correct in his thesis that California marketing should focus on drinkability rather than ageability. But then, they wouldn’t be thought of as “serious” commanding the prices that are currently demanded.

  6. Why would we want people to age our wines. Buy consume and buy more. Realistically what segment of the wine market is actually willing to purchase and age wines on a regular basis. That kind of thinking is well outside of the instant gratification consumer mindset.

  7. Yes there is a newer style of wine making that offers a red wine that does not benefit, much from bottle aging.

    Remember when Merlot was getting started in the retails stores in the mid/late 1980s. It became popular because, as the retailers said, it required no ageing time to soften the tannins.

    Oh Well.

    Now here is a factor left out. Travel sickness, not Steve I do not mean when you get woozy from flying or driving all over CA.
    When wines are shipped, particularly across the Atlantic there just seems to be something untoward that happens to the wine. Even if the wine does not need bottle aging as such a relatively good Spanish needs some time to recover. I may recall correctly or incorrectly on what I remember. I think it is 4 to 6 weeks to make a complete recovery from travel sickness. I know that is not aging but I have tasted wines that have just arrived and then tasted them 2 months later and they were much improved. That 4-6 weeks includes the time on the truck from the dock.

  8. When I’m pouring behind the tasting bar and the aging question comes up, I also say 5 years or so, if at all. I also point out that regardless if you think the wine might be better then than now, it will be different, so if you like the way it tastes now, drink it now.

  9. I agree drink up if you will and age it if you feel like giving a bit of time but above all enjoy it!

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