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Aging wine: an accidental result of bad technology

21 comments

If California has taught the world anything, and I hope and like to think it has, it’s that the first duty of a wine is to be delicious.

Not ageable. Delicious.

Some wine critics look at ageability as something desirable. They swoon over wines that are tannic, mute and stubborn in youth, rhapsodizing over what they will turn into some day—10, 20, 30 years down the road—when they become nectar. And sure, there’s a handful of wines in the world that do become special in old age

There are two flaws in this vision, though. The first is that the appreciation of old wine is an acquired taste. Most people who have never developed that particular esthetic would find an aged wine—I mean one that has actually developed bouquet and cellar character, not one that’s simply old—disagreeable.

The second fly in the ointment is this: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the entire notion of aging wine arose during the 1700s and 1800s (after proper bottles and stoppers were invented) because many of the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were so tannic that they were basically undrinkable during their early years. The French figured out that if they lay the bottles on their sides, in a cool place where the temperature couldn’t do them any harm, those pesky tannins would eventually fall out. The wine then could be carefully decanted, with the sediment falling into the shoulder, and the resulting liquid would pour clear and sweet.

Do you think the French would have made less tannic wines if they’d possessed the ability to do so? I do. There was nothing particularly advantageous in having to store wine for so many years. It took up space, it required management, it was tedious, and the bottles developed notoriously unevenly. The French (and their English, Belgian, Swiss, Danish and other customers) just wanted something to drink that was, well, delicious. That they had to wait for years was simply an accident of technology: modern methods of tannin management, including developments in the vineyard and in the winery, didn’t yet exist.

Well, they do now. Take Napa Valley Cabernet. I’ve heard many French people say how tannic they find it, which is weird, because I think Grand Cru Bordeaux is really tannic. Regardless of who’s right or wrong on that score, Napa Valley Cabernet is tannic, because the grape’s thick skins make it so. But vintners have developed all sorts of ways to soften those tannins, fundamentally changing their molecular structure to make them feel silkier. The result, in a wine like (for example) Monticelllo’s 2008 Corley Reserve, is spectacular deliciousness. Nor is this yummy factor limited to Cabernet, as evidenced by (another example; I could have cited dozens) Roessler’s 2009 Hein Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Anderson Valley, rich, glyceriney and delicious.

Had the Bordelais and Burgundians been able to produce wines like these, I’m positive they would have, and this whole notion of cellaring wines would never have assumed the proportions it has. An entire industry of refrigerated storage units and customized residential cellars might not even exist. But that’s not how things turned out. The French were utterly unable to manage their tannins, and so history took a different turn.

I sometimes think that the anti-California wine crowd out there has a problem with immediate gratification. They’re like Puritans who think life should be hard. Any joy, in the way of dancing, movies, sex, luxuriating in food and drink, is bad. It’s not just California wine they complain about, it’s the California style itself: hedonistic, sensuous, physically beautiful, playful, sexy, celebratory rather than stoical, fun. To condemn California for being all glittery surface and no substance is very old and widespread, but isn’t it always tinged with a little jealousy? Our wine, too, is criticized, but it has taught the world to see fruit in a different way that has improved wine everywhere.

  1. Hmmmmmm….I wonder if we could have this same discussion, except not in the context of wine, but in the context of curdled milk?? JohnFiscalini might even weigh in on that one.

  2. You had me until the final paragraph. In no way am I an anti California person but I do prefer the wines of the old world, and by an awfully large margin, especially when it comes to QPR but I’ve read two posts as of late, this one being one of the two, that make those of us that like/love/adore/crave wines with less blowsy fruit, higher acidity and leaner frames seems as if we aren’t as pleasure seeking as those that like rounder, fleshier and fruitier wines and I simply don’t get that. Puritans?! Oh please, I’m as indulgent as person as I know, I eat what I want, say what I want, touch who they hell I wish and drink as much of what I’m into as I want so I’m as far from a Puritan as they come, but I tend to find my pleasure in the things I have to work a little for. I don’t get turned on by simply looking at a naked dude, far from it and it will take a lot more than skin to get me out of my clothes, no matter how good looking the cat might be. My desire isn’t withheld, it’s earned and that goes for wine as much as it does for people. Hey, if some folks are into buck naked and spread eagle, good for them, I, and many like me, enjoy the slow seduction, the coaxing, the removal of layers. So quit making it sound like we don’t enjoy as much as you do…annoying as hell. Okaythankssomuch….

  3. Samantha, don’t blame the nudists, they just have the technology to get undressed more quickly… Loved the analogy, btw!

  4. Age your wine if that’s your thing! I have been collecting and drinking wine for about fifty years. I like to drink good wine whether it be today, tomorrow or next month. My experience has taught me that if you age a lot of wine, you are apt to be disappointed more often than rewarded.

  5. A few things
    1) Age-ability may have been an accident, however there is something about it that captures our imagination – memory, historic significance, durability, growth etc
    2) The idea that forthcoming expression in a wine is mutually exclusive to subtlety, is just specious reasoning and often just a case of confirmation bias by a group that wants to claim superiority of one style over another

  6. I’ve lived and worked in Napa for many years…..I love California Cabs, but they are painful….the first time I tasted them, I thought how awful….and then someone offered me a 15-year-old Cab, AH…..I buy and age at least 7 years before I drink…..that is just the way I am. If I want something immediately, I pull out a Petite Sirah….

  7. Kyle,
    Not blaming in the least, just pointing out that some of us find it sexier to slowly take it off….as it were.

  8. Steve: This is a great post. Just the right amount of provocativeness to prompt a great discussion.

    That said, I tend to agree with Samantha and dr. Ageability may have been an accident but it has proven to have intrinsic value. Quality wines that age well evolve and are enjoyable for different reasons at different times. Consistent with dr’s points, there is great pleasure in saving fine ageable wines from years that mark special events in life and enjoying them on anniversaries over time. Contrast this with wines that though bombastic and delicious in their youth, never become better or attain new attractive qualities after a relatively brief period of time, and instead deteriorate to the point of being empty and unenjoyable after just a few years. This is by no means true of all modern California Cabernets, many of which age very well, but it is true of quite a number, including many that are very expensive.

  9. Let us not forget, that there are LOADs of subtle wines that do not age well. Nonageability IS NOT synonymous with fruit forward/generous etc.
    I drink lots of beautiful chinon, for example, that are quite subtle and restrained. A few I might age, most of them don’t go anywhere, even if they “last”.

    Most wines, regardless of style, do not age well

  10. Are the French jealous? Probably. Probably not willing to admit it too. Accidents inevitably are a part of our history, and only the accidents worth keeping stick around. There is something rather cerebral about having a wine that endures the ages. The story and journey are sometimes just as, if not more, interesting that the wine and it structure. The Estates that have emerged with a track record of wines that endure the test of time, will always have their place in the market. However, unless your estate is well established or has endless pockets, it is not a model that works. Nor is it a model that works well with new world cultural demands.

    That being said… I have always felt that life is too short, to hold onto things that can not be used. So, why have wine that is undrinkable in it’s youth? I can’t find any reason. More so, why not produce a wine that is good in its youth and will age gracefully? Balance isn’t that what is is all about anyway?

  11. Joel Peterson says:

    Vive la difference, and the possibility.

  12. Patrick Frank says:

    A fascinating post, because it gets to the aesthetic question which a lot of tasters just skip over. If you study the Wine Spectator ratings (which I have recently been doing because it was free for a couple weeks), you see that they give the highest numbers to the very sort of closed-in, austere, maybe even stubborn wines that Steve mentioned. That then becomes the benchmark of “greatness.” But hey, that’s only one definition of greatness and there are lots of others. It’s like saying that Michelangelo is inherently “greater” than Kasimir Malevich or Dong Qichang. Thank you Steve for re-introducing relativity into wine judgment in a fabulous way.

  13. I also appreciate the post; however I am in the camp with Samantha, Dr, and Mike. Calling people Puritans simply because they have a preference in wine style seems a little extreme and a little black and white. Like the others that have posted, the small percentage of wine that IS truly age-worthy, are worth waiting for. Are there a large amount of people that are over cellaring their wines? Probably. My guess is that a larger number do not and from memory I believe a large percentage of wine is consumed within a few years of being produced.
    Perhaps the concept of ageability is over emphasized in the winemaking process especially in the higher-end Cab arena and because of that, they are built with excessive amounts of tannin to fit the stereotype of that market. I wouldn’t say this is the case for all, but the ones that you Steve, seem to be referencing are probably out of balance and may never be worth drinking. Or by the time they are mellow, the flavor trajectory had long past and you are left with oak, water, and alcohol.
    I would also like to point out that there are a lot of great Old World wines that do not require decades of mellowing out to be enjoyed. Similarly, there has been a lot of California wine that I have felt was too tannic at the time I opened them and hoped with a few more years perhaps they would be more approachable.
    It’s a good discussion but I think you are trying to create distinct categories of consumers that wine writers seem to enjoy doing. Instead simply pointing out that the original need for cellaring wine might not play as large of a role as it once had (although perhaps not as interesting to read or write about).

  14. michael donohue says:

    I beg to differ! Aged wines, mature ‘full-blossom’ wines (those that have shed their tannin to reveal all their charm) are to the fruitfulness of youth as wisdom is to infancy: a 37 Taylors or 62 Latour or 55 Pichon Baron or Madeira from the 17 or 1800′s, are intrinsically different. They do repay keeping by evolving in barrel or bottle, vat or tetra, if that is tannin management, so be it. Years ago someone came up with a device, a magnetzed metal plate that purportedly accelerated maturation – where is it now? Or is it reverse osmosis or a spinning cone? On an xy scale those wines and their ilk resemble release prices of relatively little, the teens and $20, against flavor units in the high 90′s, almost off the scale, and a measurable evolution from current vintages- it rarely happens to the few of us Steve who are constantly presented with a relative ocean of Cal wine -so little of it made not be matured ie to early Hillside Select and the current Decanter listing – many of which you have, I suspect, grown up on. They have a history of less than 50 years in most cases and in most cases history doesn’t treat them well. Vive la diffference! Vive Dominus 91! Knowledge enhances appreciation. You ask if ageability in wine is somehow desirable (as opposed to the aesthetic and business driven necessities of Tannin Management) and I scream YES! Give me the transformational magic of today in the vineyard and cellar to bottled history, just to see what happens. You are implicitly arguing for the manipulation of all wine to achieve the beauty of certain aged bottles (also known as wine by number), exactly the same ideal the artisan garagiste employs.

  15. I’m not sure the story about learning to store bottles on the side and the whole appreciation of aged wine and vintages is a French thing. It was my understanding (perhaps “misunderstanding”) that this ageing thing started with English merchants loading up their ships in Bordeaux and habitually tossing on a few barrels of claret, which the subsequently they bottled when back at home and thus had a large cache of 11% alcohol, tannic claret in their cellar. Year after year these tended to build up and the English came to appreciate the differences of vintages and positive nature of bottle ageing. Thanks to climate change, chaptalization, reverse osmosis and Robert Parker this is no longer necessary in claret. Or most any wine. In fact, extended bottle ageing of today’s wine is usually a bad idea.

    Wines are judged and the verdict is written at the release of a vintage when it lands in Steve’s hands. So your a fool to not have it taste the best when he first tastes it… you know…that split second moment that determines whether it is worthy of his blessing or isn’t. ;>)

    There’s more to wine than the judgement we make on its quality.

    Irrespective of whether bottle ageing is a good idea, I have to say it is a joy to bring out a 50 year old wine and find it palatable, particularly around the holidays. Maybe the wine isn’t what it once was, but it goes with the timeless nature of the winter holiday season and the gathering of friends and family.

  16. Another thought–other wine components (e.g., alcohol and sugar) mask the impact of tannins in wine. Could it be that those aspects of the “new world” wine style–higher alcohol and even some residual sugar in wines traditionally fermented dry–contribute to the impression that tannin is being managed? If true, then one would expect the CA wines in balance in their youth by virtue of their alcohol/RS components to become unbalanced as they age. And, let’s hear it for instant gratification. My patience for aging wine diminishes as I age.

  17. sounds like i won’t be the first to raise an objection. but i do have two points to add to the long collections of commenters who appreciate old wine:

    1) making wine that “tastes good” with modern technology is pretty easy. start by putting your wine through a concentrater to get the brix up, then stop fermentation early so you leave a little sugar, round it out with a high pH, and if its a red wine, throw in some oak chips. boom! you just turned your shitty grapes into tasty wine. only one problem: your wine will fall apart in 2-5 years (and there is a lot of expensive wine to support that theory). the beauty of aged wine is that it cuts through all the shortcuts, so that only a true artist can hand-craft a wine that will age with aplomb. not saying that i am there yet, but it seems like a much more honorable goal than learning how to manipulate wine so that shitty grapes will taste good for a little while.

    2) i was recently lucky enough to taste two very old and very special wines. i won’t brag about the winery or vintage. i’ll only say that these wines were profound in a way that no young wine has ever been, could ever be, or will ever be. when you taste something like that, every young and tasty wine becomes instantly irrelevant. A great wnie that has aged for decades has flavors that are beyond description.

    Steve, I still love ya, but you’re wrong on this one. A great aged wine is an experience that you remember for a lifetime. It’s the reason we all love wine so much. And it’s worth a thousand $100 napa cabs that will fall apart in five years. I can probably count on one hand, and describe in great detail. the great aged wines i’ve drank in my life. while tasty young wine definitely has it’s place, there is nothing, NOTHING, like a great aged wine.

  18. I really think someone needs to define, or at least put a range on, “aged.” I find that there is a broad range of time frames associated with the concept. Some people say they age wine and mean that it sits in their basement until they find a reason to drink it (6 mos. to 2 years), while others don’t consider anything less than 10 years past vintage to be “aged.” Someone once told me that you’ll never go wrong drinking a Cali Pinot at 6 years old, and I’ve pretty much stuck to that, with good success.

    I do get a special thrill, however, when I pop a high end Napa or Sonoma Cab just after release, the wines tend to be so exuberant that that point.

    Steve, I won’t go as far to say that you contradict yourself, but take a look at this article from a few years back and tell me that those old, over the hill wines didn’t just blow your mind:

    http://www.winemag.com/Wine-Enthusiast-Magazine/March-2010/Pinots-Near-The-Pinnacle/

  19. Grapes – I don’t think has necessarily contradicted himself. One can enjoy young, fruit-forward wine just as much as aged wine that has taken on secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors. What gets me about this post is that Steve seems to be attacking old-world style wine being a product of a flawed system (“utterly unable to manage their tannins”). It seems to me that Steve is being a bit defensive about others attacking *his* California wines for being different. I think the wines that are approachable in their youth have advantages and a place at one’s table and can be considered high-quality wines, but the ability to age is definitely a necessary characteristic of top-flight (and expensive) wines. Would you buy the most beautiful car in the world if it fell apart in 3 years? I think Steve could have found a way to praise *his* CA wines without attacking French wines and lovers of aged wines as Puritanical. Should many of the wines Steve highly praises (and throws 98 and 99 point scores at) fail to age, I foresee a similar post in about 20 years: “Unageable wine: a result of bad technology.”

  20. Giuseppe Capozzolo says:

    Aging wine did not begin with the French. Ancient Egyptians from 3000 B.C. favored aged wines, so did the greeks in 850 B.C., some very basic research would have enabled you to realize that aged wines have been around for almost as long as wine has existed. You can read about the history of human’s and wine in the books Divine Vintage or even in Drink.

    Your entire premise is based on faulty logic that instant gratification is more pleasurable than having to wait a little for the pleasure. I personally enjoy both young and aged wines depending on my mood at that given time. So while some of my wines are aging, I’ll pop open a younger bottle that I will enjoy until some of my ageworthy wines have matured. Neither option is better than the other, they are just different. Much like a grilled rib steak VS. braised beef ribs, a grilled steak takes 8-12 minutes to cook whereas the braised beef ribs can take a couple of hours to be ready. Which is better? Neither, I like both way too much to choose.

  21. Steve is being provocative here, which is why I often find myself returning to this blog. So I will take the bait on the proposition that aging wines results from bad technology. First there is a range of perceptions expressed here concerning tannins that contradict my experience, including Steve’s that Bordeaux is more tannic than Napa Cab; Cato’s that California Cabs are painful until aged around 7 years; Patrick Frank’s that highest scores in WS go to closed in, austere, tannic wines.

    In the late 70’s and early 80’s I had the chance to visit Bordeaux and taste from barrels at some of the best chateaux. The revelation was how delicious they tasted in the barrel, and this clashed with the conventional wisdom at the time in Napa, that Cabernet had to be ugly in its youth to be beautiful with age. Often the most dense, most tannic lots were selected as “reserve” lots. Over the next decade or so we evolved to an appreciation of wines that were balanced, and realized a wine could be attractive throughout its life (like people)! We learned “tannin management” which could be achieved by paying closer attention to fruit ripening; using processing equipment that was gentler; and found extraction techniques targeting specific tannins. We began to produce rounder wines, with more depth, and yet with excellent aging potential.

    Site plays an important role also. We have been producing wines from our vineyard since 1996. They are enjoyable when released at 3 years of age, yet they evolve over a long period of time. Steve has a standing offer to come and taste all 17 vintages; I’ve recently tasted the ’96 and ’97, and they are still gaining in interest.

    But to be less self-serving, let me use the example of our next-door neighbor on Diamond Mountain, which is Diamond Creek. Several years ago I had the opportunity to taste all their bottlings back to the first vintage, which I think was 1969. With 3 or 4 vineyard bottlings each year, this was a formidable tasting. The wines of the ‘70’s and 80’s still had a lot of unresolved tannin, but the wines of the ‘90’s and beyond were rounder, more balanced, and delicious. I don’t think DC sacrificed ageability; in fact I suspect these wines will be wonderful 30 years out. I would say they are “intellectual wines” that would be fun to study (check out from the library?) over many years. This as opposed to the “hedonistic wines” tricked out and pimped to show brightly only for the brief moment when they are reviewed upon release. It seems to me that it is this style that all too often grabs the big scores. I am not saying this style is invalid, I’m just saying that there is room for a range of styles. And I feel if one happens to have a site lending itself to wines that will age, one almost has an obligation to produce the more classically styled wine, and not trick them out. They are not for every night, not for everyone, but they have an important place for those with the space and inclination to cellar wines for significant future events.
    More fun here: http://www.dyerwine.com/index.cfm?method=blog.blogList&fromDate=08%2F01%2F2010&ToDate=08%2F31%2F2010

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