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Aging your wine? Don’t expect a Magic Moment

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People are always asking me when they should drink this or that wine.

I wish I had an easy answer for them, like, “Oct. 29, 2024, at 7:18 p.m.” They want specificity and certitude, not a lecture. But the question of when to drink a wine is very complicated.

First, it depends on how mature the person likes his wines. It’s not as if a wine is terrible now and will remain terrible until it hits a Magic Moment of transcendent loveliness, after which it once again descends back into terribleness. Wine doesn’t behave like that.

Most wine is fine to drink as soon as it’s released, even if it’s ageable. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to open a young Latour or Barolo. It’s really not a good idea at all. But you can, and the Aging Police won’t come after you. Certainly, the majority of top California Cabernets, Syrahs and Pinots are ready to drink soon after release.

But if a wine is balanced, and you cellar it properly, it will “age.” What does “aging” mean? The wine changes, gradually over time. The tannins may drop out as sediment, leaving the wine softer and clearer and letting the sweetness of the fruit emerge. The fruit itself changes, evolving from “primary” characteristics of fresh fruits to “secondary” ones of dried fruits, herbs, earth, nuts and flowers. This process can go on for a very long time before the wine is “too old.”

But what does “too old” mean? Reasonable people will disagree. I once read (in Michael Broadbent? Could have been Hugh Johnson) that the French used to think the British liked their wines “with the first blush of death.” This was an implied criticism. The French supposedly liked their Bordeaux younger and fresher than the Brits, who kept theirs cellared for decades. Neither the French nor the British was right or wrong on this; it’s a matter of preference.

Another thing is that we usually talk about wines in the abstract, when in reality, we drink them with food. And, if you’re into the pairing thing (which is often over-preciousized, but that’s another conversation), it’s important to understand that the age of a wine conditions the best foods to eat with it. For example, a young, robust Napa Valley Cabernet can be great with a complex dish–say, char-broiled steak, with a wine-reduction sauce and sautéed Portobello mushrooms and sweet potato crisps, or the same steak in a Gorgonzola cheese sauce. But if you have, say, a 20-year old Cab that’s clear and mellow, I’d drop the sauce and stick with a plain steak, maybe with a brown butter sauce. An old wine is a delicate wine that can get crowded out by overly elaborate food.

You’d think these would be easy points to convey yet most consumers–especially those with a little knowledge of wine–still believe in the Magic Moment. Maybe it’s the romanticist in us, or the mystic: we believe in fairy tale endings, when the Prince kisses the sleeping Princess who, after long years of slumber, opens her eyes. They embrace, and live happily ever after.

But life isn’t a fairy tale, and wine seldom has such perfect endings. And think of this: How many times have you enjoyed an older wine, only to have someone you’re with say they don’t like it? (Or vice versa.) So this is eye of the beholder stuff. We haven’t even talked about bottle variation and storage conditions, which obviously are critical. Finally: the expectation of a “Magic Moment” has probably led to more sadness and disappointment among wine drinkers than anything else. They cellar something for 10 or 15 years, anticipate popping the cork and soaring into wine ecstasy. Then the moment comes, and the wine is dull. We writers and critics have got to do a better job disabusing consumers of their belief in the Magic Moment. It does no one any good.

  1. great article. things like vintage, food pairings, and ageworthiness are nuanced topics. Its nice to hear someone speak to the intricacies of wine, rather than grabbing an opinion and shouting it. very well done

  2. What I often tell people to remember is the old wine wisdom, “Wine doesn’t get better with age, it gets different with age.” Better, as you say, is a condition honorable people can disagree about. No one ever really knows how a wine will be in ten years, let alone twenty, but you can be certain it will not be the wine it was when you first tasted it. And that’s where all the fun is.

  3. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    I get asked the “how long should I age it” question all the time at Cline. I launch into the “personal preference” speech and describe some of the changes they can expect as a wine ages – like fresh fruit character evolving into dried fruit character.

    I also suggest they buy a case of the wine and drink a bottle each year. They can keep their tasting notes and experience first- hand what cellar time does to the wine and its a great excuse for a party.

  4. I tend to keep suggested drink windows conservative, within three years for whites and seven – ten for reds. It is rare that I suggest not touching something for a year or two. The reality is that only a small percentage of wine purchases see even cursory cellaring time. Experience has shown that most consumers want the wine to taste the way it did at the winery or restaurant, or how it is described in a review. I don’t have much chance to go back and retaste older vintages. When I do, the wines have clearly evolved but for the most part the ‘quality’ of the wine has stayed intact. Will they get the same review/score after ten years? Probably not though I can think of only one wine I loved on release that inexplicablty had completely fallen apart within the ‘drinking window’. That was shocking because it was pretty expensive Cabernet Sauvignon from a good vintage.

  5. Yes, the Aging Police WILL come after you … just very, VERY slowly ;)

    Let’s not forget that proper storage conditions are absolutely vital to the proper aging of a wine that has that potential.

    People treat their $3 tub of cottage cheese with more care than a $40 bottle of wine that *might* blossom into something truly special — IF they stored it correctly.

  6. Over the years I have had many surprises from the cellar, both good and bad. So I now take aging as an adventure with unpredictable results, rather than as a journey to the promised land. It’s more fun that way.

  7. Jason Smith says:

    That’s why you should only buy one case minimum, so you can open multiple bottles at different ages.

  8. Regarding French, British and American palates, something like this was passed around years ago:

    The French drink their wines young before the government takes it from them. The British drink them old because they like showing off dusty, cobwebbed bottles. And the Americans drink them anytime they want because they don’t know any better.

  9. Thank you! I think I’ll use some of these analogies in my tasting room sales if you don’t mind. I never knew about the primary and secondary favors.

  10. Steve – as always I enjoyed reading the blog post, but I am going to take the other side of this argument, in regards to your point about how California wines are ready to drink after release.

    Before I get started, I would like to make a few comments –

    1) People need to decant more wines. 30 to 60 minutes in a decanter does wonders for wine. If your drinking a younger wine, give it 1 to 2 hours, and save a glass for the next day, so you can re-taste.
    2) If you have a really great bottle of wine, don’t drink it with a meal. Instead, drink it before the meal with a few bites of cheese so that you can really enjoy what is in the bottle. I can’t tell you how many times, I have been at a dinner, and the host brings out a great bottle of wine to have with the dinner, and, you can’t fully appreciate it with the food because it gets lost. It is no longer about the food and all about the wine. In these cases the wine should be the most memorable part (center piece) of the night, because we have all had great meat, fish, poultry or pasta dishes countless number of times. So, I completely agree that a young robust CA Cabernet would go best with a char-broiled steak with a wine reduction sauce.

    Magic Moment
    I think people hold onto certain wines for way too long because they are looking for the occasion to justify popping the cork. As you discussed, this is often times foolish, although I have had a number of really good old California Cabernets (’75 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Magnum in 2003, ’85 Joseph Phelps Insignia 3L in 2004). My rule of thumb (depending on the vintage and producer) is that the sweet spot for CA Cabernet is 6 to 15 years post vintage date.

    Majority of Top CA Cabernets, Syrahs and Pinots are ready to drink soon after release —

    For starters, I think this really depends on the wine drinker’s taste profile preference. I prefer wines that have softened somewhat, but some people prefer wines with some edginess. I also think that this is a marketing gimmick by the CA Wine Industry so that it can differentiate itself from wines from France. Robert Mondavi did a great job of talking about how CA Cabernet producers made wine that was meant to be consumed upon release. I drink a lot of red wines from Bordeaux, and generally speaking, they aren’t that approachable until they are 10+ years old. In addition, and as you alluded to in your post, in order to be able to put wine away you need to be able to store it properly.

    2 great readily available CA Cabernets for around $20: ’09 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet and ’09 Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet.

    I buy these wines each year at Safeway, and put them away for 3 to 4 years, and then start drinking them (6 to 10 years post vintage date). These wines drink great for 10 years post vintage (Louis Martini maybe longer). IMHO, they are just not that good upon release. I have decanted them for 3+ hours, and they don’t do it for me. The Mondavi has too much alcohol and the Martini has too much wood. On Day 2, these wines taste better, and you can tell that they are going to be really good in a few years. Right now I am drinking the ’04, ’05 and ’06 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet and they are fantastic. Now they taste a lot better if you decant them for 40 to 60 minutes.

    On the high-end, let’s look at wines from Larkmead. Recently, I have had ’06 Larkmead LMV Salon and ’02 Larkmead Napa Valley Cabernet. Decanted ’06 Larkmead LMV Salon for 2+ hours, and although it was fine, you could tell that the wine hadn’t even started to stretch its legs. ’02 Larkmead Napa Valley Cabernet needed 40 minutes in the decanter to perk-up, and it tasted great, and probably has another 5 to 6 years of great drinking. Now if I had more bottles of the ’02 Larkmead, I would probably drink them up, because it tastes so good right now, why wait.

  11. Terrific article and responses. At the age of almost 70 I’m trying to stop buying wines that wine makers suggest should age for more than 4-5 years. We have lots of lovely wines in our cellar and I selfishly don’t want to leave all that many bottles for our kids. So, I’ve begun to buy wines that don’t need to keep for a long time before enjoying and am working through our older inventory, Thankfully there are many lovely wines out there ready to drink within a year or two after purchase. What a difference a decant makes!

  12. Dear Annie, thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

  13. “Neither the French nor the British was right or wrong on this; it’s a matter of preference.”

    Sorry – when the French and the British disagree, the British are ALWAYS right!

    The Sediment Blog

  14. Sediment Blog: haha!

  15. As you suggest, I am one of those of have often (but not always) been disappointed when open a bottle I’ve aged.

    I think Charlie has the right idea: buy a case and open one bottle a year to see how the wine is aging.

  16. Buying a case can be a great adventure. We had the experience over the course of several years of drinking a fine cab all the way to its peak and then noting with the next bottle that it was “time to drink up”.

  17. Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up.

    The text in your post seem to be running off the screen
    in Firefox. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I figured I’d post
    to let you know. The design and style look great though!

    Hope you get the issue resolved soon. Cheers

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