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How I come up with ageability recommendations


One of the biggest challenges to the wine critic is determining if a wine is ageable and, if you think it is, then how long to recommend that your readers age it.

This is irrelevant for most wines, but for that small handful of wines that do indeed improve with age, it’s perhaps the single most important piece of information the critic can convey. After all, when you look at the prices people pay for some of these wines, they deserve to know if their bottle is drinkable now or will improve in the cellar.

If the critic tastes openly, it makes the task a lot easier. You’re at Chateau Figeac tasting the 2009? It’s tight and tannic and oaky, but then, it is Figeac. Tell your readers to cellar it. That’s a no-brainer.

If you’re tasting blind, it’s a different story. Lots of wines are tight, tannic and oaky, but they can’t all be ageable. So there’s got to be something else the critic looks for. In the absence of external information (you don’t know the name of the winery, so you don’t know if the wine has a history of aging), you have to look for other cues. What are they?

That’s why I call it “one of the biggest challenges,” because it’s really hard to make this determination.

You can start by a process of elimination. Think of all the reasons why the wine couldn’t possibly improve in the cellar. It may be too thin, or out of whack in acidity, too obviously hot in alcohol, or flawed in some other general way. This is the easy part. It’s when you’re gotten your flight down to the dense, balanced, tannic young wines that the difficulties mount.

It used to be said (and some people may still believe it) that a wine that’s delicious on release isn’t ageable. People thought that an ageable wine had to be tough and resistant in youth. That may have been true a long time ago, but it isn’t true anymore. Many California Cabernet Sauvignons, in fact most, that age well are super-good on release, and the same is true of many classified growth Bordeaux that I have occasion to sample every year. I was reminded of this fact when I read, in Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs, the quote from Eric d’Aramon, concerning his father-in-law, the owner of Figeac. “When I did my first tasting [with him]…every cuve that he selected for the grand vin, I selected for the second wine, and vice versa.” This naturally shocked Eric, “but [then] he explained to me, ‘you have been selecting the vats for drinking now, I am selecting them for future potential.’”

Eric, in other words, thought less of the harder, more austere batches than he did of the lusher, more fruit-forward batches. This is perfectly understandable, but it leads back to the conundrum of how to tell the difference between a hard, austere wine that will improve with age and one that won’t.

Here’s how I do it. Since I don’t know the identity of the wine while I’m reviewing it, I’ll work up some preliminary thoughts about it [flavors, structure, balance, length and so on], and also assign it a score. Those things are invariant. Then, when the bottle comes out of the bag, I work on my final review, before sending it electronically to Wine Enthusiast. So how I do decide whether or not to give a wine a “Cellar Selection” designation? Well, it’s not necessarily because I’m familiar with the aging histories of many of these wines. For example, I’ve recently given Cellar Selections to Cabernets from Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Bjorn, Venge, Redmon and B Cellars, and I’ve never had any older wines from any of them. I did it because the wines seemed to me to possess all the stuffing and equilibrium to go the distance–and they are all from Napa Valley. On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection recommendations for the likes of Ridge Montebello, Corison and Beaulieu Private Reserve in Cabernets, and some of Williams Selyem’s single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, all of which are wines I’m familiar with as they age. With those, I feel like I’m on surer footing than with wines Ive never tasted old. But I wouldn’t give a Cellar Selection unless I was sure in my own mind that the wine would age well, which is why, for example, I gave a good score to Raymond’s 2009 District Collection Cabernet, and suggested it could do interesting things in eight years, but ultimately  didn’t give it a Cellar Selection. I just wasn’t sure enough to go there.

  1. I recently noticed in another major wine publication that the same writer wrote about three different 2009 Napa cabs-one scored 94 with ‘drink now though 2022’, one scored 93 with ‘drink now through 2023’ , and another scored 93 with ‘drink now through 2024’.

    How does that work? What could possibly extend the drinkability window of one wine by a year over another-10 years from now? Crazy eh?

  2. Steve you will taste and review how many wines in one sitting… an average?

  3. Thank you for including this phrase:

    “. . . but for that small handful of wines that do indeed improve with age . . . ”

    One of the most pervasive myths surrounding wine is the notion that all wines age well and transform into magical elixirs.

    Some do.

    Nearly all of the rest fade into oblivion.

    Live in the moment with your wine collection. Enjoy it now. We’ll make more next fall.

  4. It seems to me that “improve” is the operative word here.

    Many wines can age — indeed, survive! — but many simply do not improve and yield the additional complexities that are the payoff from ageing. That is where the track record of the producer comes into play. Giving a new or unknown producer a 95+ for structure and balance is one thing, but forecasting the wine’s improvement is quite another.

  5. Tom Barras, you are right! “Forecasting the wine’s improvement is quite another.” It’s a judgment call.

  6. Dear Wineguys Radio: 15 is my average.

  7. John: I am laughing out loud! I suggest you ask the person who wrote that.

  8. hey Steve,

    Really interesting piece, I’m sure it is difficult to predict the longevity of wine when you are tasting it blind. From my side of the picture, acidity is the key ingredient for building a wine to last. Red wines that are bottled at a pH below 3.6 or 3.5 and whites below 3.2 or 3.1 are less hospitable to spoilage bacteria, and are therefore less likely to spoil over time. I have much less experience tasting wine than you, but my experience making wine leads me to believe that acidity is an important factor in longevity.

  9. Gabe brings up some good points, acid is one of the key factors in the ageability of wine. Brett, VA, and other microbes have a harder time growing under more acidic conditions. More importantly acid retards oxidation, which is an obvious killer of aged wine.

    Winemaking has a huge part in determining the ageability of a wine. How much oxygen the wine was exposed to pre bottling, vineyard conditions, whether or not the wine was filtered, storage temps, S02 content, amount of tannins, quality of the fruit, sugar content (think about those desert wines or Riesling’s that last forever) all play a role in determining the ageability of the wine. That’s not to say that red wines with a higher pH cant age, they absolutely can, this is where the aforementioned variants come into play.

    Ultimately the life of a wine is an educated guess on the reviewers part. Nobody claims its science, nor could anyone determine with any actuality whether or not the consumer-with their varied palates-would deem a certain 2010 Napa cab over the hill or drinking well 12 years from now. For determining the end of a drinking window, my guess is that the reviewer believes premium modern Napa cabs to have a lifespan of 10 to 14 years, and gave the wines with more ageable quality’s the extra few years.

  10. I agree with gabe and Nate about acidity being important for aging wine. But some very expensive wines I taste seem overly acidic, making me wonder if the winemaker acidified too heavily. If a Cabernet is very good in every respect, except that it’s really acidic, I’d hesitate to recommend it for aging, and in fact, too much acidity will cause me to lower the score.

  11. ah, the elusive balance. We are trying to toe that line right now…2012 was a warm vintage in the Willamette, so we want to make wines that are stable without pushing them out of balance. a very difficult feat indeed. i can understand your objection to those wines – forget aging, those wines might not be good ever!

    i was thinking more about the opposite – big, rich wines with dense fruit and silky tannins that have no acidity. they always remind me of a hollywood movie with tons of special effects, but no story. those wines are usually expensive, and tend to age poorly

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