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Everything about aging California wine is changing

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In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming up in wine, the conventional wisdom was that in order to be ageable, a young wine had to be undrinkable.

That made sense. After all, it was the case in most of Europe. Barolo, Rioja, great German Riesling, and especially Grand Cru Burgundy and the top Classified Growth Bordeaux all required years and years in the cellar.

I figured it was the same for the top California wines. The people whose guidance I was depending on–Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Bob Thompson, Harvey Steiman–were saying that Cabs in particular required aging, and sometimes for an extended period of time (10-15 years, said Olken-Singer-Roby in their “Handbook,” 20 years in Thompson’s “Encyclopedia”).

I took them at their word. Trust was involved, because they were tasting a lot more and a lot better wines than I was able to (which was actually very little, given my limited budget and the fact that it was to be many years before wineries started sending me free samples), and so I had no basis other than their judgment on which to form a conclusion regarding ageability. I began collecting, modestly: Cabs from Freemark Abbey, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Pinots from Carneros Creek and Acacia, and so on, and then aging them; but the results were disappointing. I’d open a bottle after 6 or 8 years and more often than not found the resulting wine dried up and boring.

Of course, my cellar conditions were inadequate then. You couldn’t even call it a “cellar.” I had a plastic contraption that I kept in my apartment. Whatever the temperature was in my apartment, that was the temperature in my “cellar.” I knew that was bad, but it was San Francisco, where it’s pretty cool even in summer, so I kept my fingers crossed.

At some point, there was a sea change in popular thinking concerning Cabernet and Pinot. The view began to be that a wine that was undrinkable (hard in tannins, biting in acidity) in youth would never age out. Instead, the theory now went, any California wine that was ageable should be good and drinkable on release.

I fully subscribe to that theory, but when did it start and how did it come about? I was thinking about this as I read the following quote from the winemaker Philip Togni (Philip Togni Vineyard), in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs:

“I used to claim that if the wine wasn’t pretty terrible coming out of the fermenter it would never amount to anything, but I no longer believe that.”

Given Philip Togni’s wealth of experience (Chateau Lascombes, Gallo, Chateau Montelena, Chappellet, Cuvaison), this is quite a statement: The confession of a great winemaker who’d essentially gotten something very important very wrong. The only “excuse” (if that’s the right word, and it isn’t, but I can’t think of a better one) is that pretty much everyone in the 1970s in Napa Valley thought that a Cabernet had to be “pretty terrible” coming out of the fermenter in order to age well. It was the weltanschauung of the era, and weltanschauungs are the hardest things in the world to see beyond.

The reason things began to shift was, IMHO, the rise of Parker. We can argue until the cows come home about him, but let’s not today. Parker pushed winemakers around the world to produce wines that tasted pretty darned good right out of the fermenter (and out of the bottle on release).

Do they age as well as the Bordeaux of old? The critical community is still debating that one, and since there are now billions and billions of critics (tip of the hat to Carl Sagan), the debate may go on forever. On the other hand, the attitude toward aging wines is shifting with tectonic force. The parents of Baby Boomers aged their wines. Baby Boomers themselves might have aged some of their wines (if they had some kind of cellar), but they were not as obsessed with aging as their Depression-era parents. Now, the children of Baby Boomers, and in some cases their grandchildren, are becoming the main consumers of fine wine in America, and as far as I can tell, they don’t give a rat’s patootie about aging wine. They want something delicious and interesting, at whatever price they’re prepared to pay, not something they have to stick away for some point in the future when they might not even be around to enjoy it.

Much is made of Cathy Corison’s Cabernets when it comes to Napa wines in the “older” style. And it is indeed true that her Cabs are lower in alcohol and age gorgeously–well, up to ten years anyway, which is the oldest Corison Cab I’ve had. (A 2001 was fantastic in 2011.) However, ageable as they are, they’re lovely on release. Here’s what I wrote about Corison’s 93 point 2007 regular (not the Kronos): A beautiful wine, dry and classically structured, showing the elegant balance for aging. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s long and deep in blackberries and cassis. Give it a brief decant if you open it now, but it should develop over the next six years, at least.

I suppose if Cathy had been making Cabernet in 1976 I might have written something like “Tough and tannic and sharp, almost undrinkable, a dark, brooding wine of astringency. It stubbornly refuses to reveal its inner nature. However, a deep core of fruit and cassis suggests 10, 15, even 20 years in the cellar.”

Well, that wine never existed, so we don’t know, do we? It might have aged gracefully, but it might have been one of those clunkers like the Cabs I tried aging from the mid- to late 1970s. Aging wine always is a crapshoot, and I’m not a gambler. I like a sure thing, which is why I like Napa Valley Cabernet nowadays: it’s drop dead gorgeous and sexy from the get-go, and whether or not it will go 20 years is pretty much irrelevant. (But a lot will.)

  1. Great Article Steve, How do you think the long hang time, High Alcohol port-like cabs will do in the long term ?

  2. Dave, the short answer is, I don’t know. There’s no one answer. Some will last, some won’t, and there’s always bottle variation in older wines.

  3. Really interesting article. While we don’t work with much cab up here in the Willamette, working with pinot noir and especially riesling has lead me to believe that acidity is the key to the ageability of a wine. It’s based on a bit of chemistry (wine are much more microbially stable with a pH below 3.6), some classroom blending trials (blending an acidic wine with an oxidized wine tends to soften both flaws), and a very small sample size of tasting aged wines.

    On a separate note, I was lucky enough to taste the Corison wines last time i was in California, and i was blown away. Those wines are amazing.

  4. Last week we received a mailer from a Calif. Port producer offering their port as an additive to “improve” red table wines. Have heard rumors of this practice by producers aiming for the “hedonistic” style but have never before seen it referenced in the light of day.

  5. Yes, Napa Cabs can be made in a style that does not sacrifice ageability for accessibility:
    http://www.purelydomesticwinereport.com/worth-noting/2013/5/8/tasting-the-dyer-vineyard-vertical-1996-2010.html

  6. Bill Haydon says:

    Gabe, I’ll go even further and say that natural (i.e. harvested with the grapes and not out of a bag) acidity is the key to graceful aging in wine. I’ve tasted too many wines that have been adjusted into stability because of excessive ripening and the quest for ever more gobs of hedonistic fruit, yet the acid component is never a truly a harmonious component of the wine. As these wines age (even just a few years post release) the wines acid profile becomes even more noticeably disjointed from the body of the wine. By ten years, most of these (often very high scoring on release) wines are shot.

  7. I think it is fair to say that one of the things most changed in your assessment of CA wines is you. You now have experience. You now have depth and perspective. And you now know the difference between primary fruit and secondary aging effects.

    It is a growth pattern that all of us in wine go through, and we cannot really judge older wines when we have not tasted them. They are different. They have less structure and less “juice” now.

    I point this out because I think your early experiences were somewhat misleading. Moreover, in addition to the experience factor is the wines themselves.

    It seems to me that you might have had a different experience if you had been cellaring and tasting wines like Beaulieu Private Reserve, Ridge Montebello, Chappellet, Heitz Marthas Vineyard, Caymus and many others from that era. Those wines, I would posit, have aged better than the wines you mention.

    As much as I admire Mr. Togni, his early Cabs were undrinkable, unbelievably tannic. But, that is not the case for the early Robt Mondavis, Chappellets, BVs, Caymus wines. Nor was it the case for the wines you mentioned, of course, but then again, those wines were not necessarily those that did age well from the early 1970s.

    It is no longer possible for us to do a reasonable test of those wines. They are, after all, forty years old, but there is anecdotal evidence that BV 68, served at Trefethen recently to Hugh Johnson (and me who sneaked in the back door) was brilliant. There is anecdotal evidence that Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 74 served at Michael Mina a couple of years ago was so good that the sommelier brought back a glass of Margaux 82 as a reward for being able to enjoy the Heitz.

    Today’s wines, when well made, are certainly likeable when young, and the good wines should age. They won’t if they are porty, but not all long-on-the-vine, over 14% alcohol wines should be branded as porty, because if they are balanced, the difference between the high 13s that Cathy Corison gets and the mid-14s for the greater majority of high-rated Cabs is simply not all that great.

  8. Steve, very interesting read. I agree with the Togni statement but not with the view in the previous paragraph that California wines that are hard in tannins or biting in acidity in youth will never age out. I’m sure that is true for some, but I’ve had too many personal experiences with wines that fit that discription in youth and did age out, and amazingly so. In a perfect world, every wine would drink beautifully in youth and with age, but I’ve personally had bad experiences with the new-style California cabs that I’ve held for some time. They have seemed to just lose it after a few years. It seems to me that it is often one or the other — youthful exuberance or ageable grace.

    I am a particular fan of Corison wines. While I think you are correct that they can drink nicely at least relatively early in their life cycle, they clearly reach their stride with 5+ years of age. I drank the same 07 Napa Cab close to release at the winery and found that it was still tight and relatively austere. But I’ve got enough experience with Corison wines to know that in a couple of more years it will sing. What you describe as “dry and classically structured” will likely shift to something like “elegant” or “graceful” as the tannins soften. Right now, everything 04 and older seems really delightful. 05 and younger, a matter of personal taste. For me, these younder ones will be even better if I hold a little longer. I recently had a 98 Kronos that was just wonderful. A complete, balanced, complex wine at 15 years. Life is too short to have to wait a long time for all of your wines, but for some wines it really is worth the wait.

  9. Keasling says:

    Steve,
    Maybe I am just an outlier on the rat’s patootie, but having been born in the late 70s, I have to say I love my Napa and Alexander Valley cabs at least 5 years old. I’ll drink them young or old, but can’t get enough of the earthier notes that start coming to the front of an aged one. Had a 2006 Robert Young Bob’s Burn Pile and a 1985 Raymond not too long ago with friends and you couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces… So hopefully the next generation, albeit not all of the time, will learn to value an aged wine.

  10. John Lahart says:

    I too “grew up” in the 70’s–wine wise. Olken is correct in asserting that it’s a matter of perspective.
    We tend to remember the relative handful of great wines and forget the ocean of…well…not so great wines.
    Wine makers have also “grown up.” Technological advances in grape growing and wine making have played a large role in offering wine makers the opportunity to make a far wider range of wines stylistically.

    The view of aging is rooted solidly in again, a relatively tiny number of wines–even in Europe, mot wines are consumed within a few years of the vintage. The Brits with their stilted views on “claret” and Burgundy impacted our views of Cabernet and Pinot Noir.

    Aging and wine is a shaky topic at best. I don’t think anyone has come up with a formula for making wines that benefit from long term aging. If so, let’s hear it! The problem is, too many wines predicted to “require” a long time in the cellar, do not live up to expectation. They become old wines with dried out fruit and no charm. A lot of old cabernet tastes (and smells) like….old cabernet. Yes, a few reached great heights (no pun intended) but most didn’t and many many more were consumed when young.

    “Back in the day” there was greater bottle variation and a lot of poorly made wine. A lot of grapes were grown in the wrong places. Weedy, vegetal and thin Merlot and Cab was around as well as clumsy overblown , sticky pinot noir. Winemakers were still searching out terrors. I recall a case of ’76 BV Latour–several incredible bottles a few less sterling (again no pun intended) and one or two poor to mediocre–from the same case!

    In 2010 I tasted through so called “classic” cabernets from the 70’s. 32 wines, including the legendary efforts (Ridge 74, Heitz Martha’s 74 etc). The results? Mixed. The surprise? A ’74 Silver Oak! Less surprising were two ’75 efforts from Phelps. Both the ‘regular bottling and the Eisele were superb. But the Silver Oak was made in a style that was not “expected” to age well. I have also found that the conventional wisdom doesn’t hold having had several Caymus wines that were delicious on release and still delicious at ten plus years.

    That’s the problem with most conventional wisdom. It is most always over stated and rarely completely correct. Then or now. Especially with a complex and ethereal subject like wine, we look for simple easy answers. We rely on silly (in hindsight) nostrums like Grand cru Burgundy requires fifteen plus years in the cellar.” A movie is responsible for a wine’s popularity and a critic “made” wine makers make a wine in a particular style.

    Wine makers, unless they are working for a mass market operation, tend to make wines they want to make. They work with the grapes they have and the technology available. Wine is of a time and place. THE most popular wine in Italy was a high alcohol, sweet, white wine. Is that traditional? It once was. Cabernet grapes have been planted in Italy since Napolean. At what point is it a “traditional” grape/wine?

    Even with fewer options, the wine makers in California in the 60’s and 70’s used a variety of wine making techniques. Mayacamas and Silver Oak were using differnt procedures–it has always been that way. There is NO traditional style of Cabernet from any period of time. There is no magic line where one can say–oh here’s where the “modern” age begins! It is always done in hindsight. Back then, vintages mattered more. There were a lot of bad or mediocre vintages. The wines came from a few terroirs so generalizations are easier. In the 80’s and 90’s there was an explosion in wine making. Many of the plde guard disappeared or became less significant and hundreds (thousands?) of new producers entered the wine making business. New Terroirs mushroomed. The range of styles of wine being made in California alone is stunning. There is no “typical” California wine–there never really was.

    Yet we still persist in developing easy answers. So all “cult” wines share the same flavor profile. What’s a cult wine? Whatever “they” say it is. Yet anyone tasting these wines will be struck by the fact that they really do not taste same. It is just easy to lump them all together–just like we lumped Silver Oak and Heitz and Mayacamas together back in the 70’s. They weren’t the same wine then and they are not the same wine today!

  11. It is incredibly interesting stuff. Something we have been thinking about a lot and experimenting with. Ocean aging of wine or Aquaoir as we call it. You can read more about it here: http://wapo.st/16VN4Ry

  12. @John Lahart: Not that I disagree, but so many words, so little said.

  13. Good topic, Steve. Most winemakers I’ve asked about the elements of an age-worthy Cabernet say balance of tannin, acidity and fruit is the key. Sometimes that balance exists immediately, but is masked by the personality of one the aspects—be it yesterday’s tooth-sucking tannins or today’s abundant fruit. And in the “good old days” there were sometimes green flavors due to uneven ripening that made initial drinking unpleasant but subsided with time in bottle.

    Both rustic tannins and green flavors are largely a thing of the past now, making the wines more pleasant to drink young. But, in good wines, the structure is still there, simply softer in the mouth. As long as there’s enough acidity, aging potential should still be there too. At least I hope so, he says eyeing his cellar.

    BTW, I’ve had the privilege of tasting 1996 Corison Kronos Vineyard twice in the last couple of years and a 15-year vertical (starting with ’96) of Dyer a few weeks ago. Those 15+ year old wines are still gorgeous and vital.

  14. Chris Howell says:

    Wines that both taste good young and age gracefully are the eternal standard. Consider the beautiful, age-worthy wines of Henri Jayer, whose wines were also delicious when young. He did not need Robert Parker or Michel Bettane to explain this to him.

    In some cases it may be just the opposite: it is the over-worked wines, desperately seeking to please a critic that, finally cannot deliver on their promise. Don’t blame the critic!

  15. Carlos T says:

    Wine for thought, again. Loved it.

    While the ready to drink wine has changed the wine industry completely and forever it’s sort of sad to realise it may have to do with our “rush rush trend” that this so-called modern life imposes. The younger the generation, the more right now everything they are/demand. Job promotions, relationships, food at restaurant, movies (who’s to watch ‘gone with the end’ today??), short books, shorter words, sms, and so on and on. Everything is for now.

    The new wine fits into this new world.

    A good wine that needs to rest for 15 years is like an awesome song that we have to work on to understand the notes and chords better, but once we master it we’ll have ever lasting pleasure.

    It shows characteristics that the new/ready to drink wine (that can age well as well, though) won’t ever have.

    This crappy thought/analogy was crafted while listening to the let it be album. There’s the ‘i want to hold your hand’ wine (it can be worth something 15 years later) and there’s the ‘across the universe’ wine. It took me sometime to understand and appreciate the ‘across the universe’ wine, but it was way worthier than the former one.

  16. … And these children
    that you spit on
    as they try to change their worlds
    are immune to your consultations.
    They’re quite aware
    of what they’re going through…

  17. Shared a bottle of ’89 Lynch Bages with my sweetheart last night, on a mini-break in Pacific Grove, overlooking the bay. The wine spurred a lot of memories and events that had lie dormant for two decades. Tasted great with our simple meal, Cab dominant, complex bottle bouquet. As I recall it tasted pretty good 20 years ago as well. In fact, at four years of age it tasted like it was just a few months out of the fermenter.

    So why was it slow aging, and why had it kept so well? Labeled 12.5%, it wasn’t alcohol content. It wasn’t tannin, the wine was pretty smooth in 1992, and while tannins are antioxidants, proper bottle aging does not involve air and a rough wine will stay rough (the 79 LB had a beautiful 58mm cork that looked like it was put in yesterday.) It wasn’t oak, the wine didn’t show it when young, nor at 24. The wine was well stored, two different cellars one at 55°, the other at 60. The storage didn’t hurt, but others fade in the same conditions. It could be pH and acidity related, the wine was well balanced. It might have been a bright and zesty varietal aroma at bottling, none of the long hangtime prune.

    For me long aging is still a mystery, except that if the wine tastes young for its age at four, it will probably taste young for its age at 24 if well sealed and stored. Despite the mystery, keeping wine and enjoying it after decades can be meaningful and life enriching and shouldn’t be discounted.

  18. Keasling says:

    Gabe: Great quote from David Bowie’s “Changes”
    John Hughes used it in his 1985 film, “The Breakfast Club” (as I am sure you know), to describe the Baby Boomer’s offspring. The ones who don’t give a rat’s patootie about aging wines apparently.

  19. John Lahart says:

    I’ll be brief!
    There is no evidence that wines made in California in the 60’s and 70’s “aged” any better than the wines made in the 80’s or 90’s.

    In fact, I would posit that there are far more wines made in the 80’s and 90’s and thus, many more wines that aged well (as opposed to the 70’s etc).

  20. Gary Eberle says:

    I remember Maynard Amerine at a graduate seminar saying that to age well a wine needed balance going into the bottle. He stressed that because a wine loses fruit as it ages if the wine had l little more fruit it probably had a better chance of aging well. He was particularly down on wines with big massive tannins. He said when the fruit faded all that was left was the tannin to over power what little fruit was left. Balance in- balance out.

  21. Gary Eberle, that reminds me of some of the wines from the late 70s in California. Massive tannins. Winemakers thought they would age for 30 years but instead the fruit died and the tannins were left behind.

  22. Gary Eberle says:

    Still a lot of wines like that being made today.

  23. I recall my first trip to Bordeaux in the early 80’s where industry contacts brought many opportunities to taste from barrel. The wines were so attractive, with rich, supple tannins. This at a time when the conventional wisdom here was that the “reserve” wines were huge, with ripping tannins. I can still remember the Ducru Beaucaillou in the barrel–so beautiful and attractive as a new wine. At the end of the trip, on the way home from the airport, I pulled into the cellar to taste the wines in barrel from the winery where I worked at the time. I had the epiphany that the wines we designated as “reserve” seemed over the top and brutish. The world changed.

  24. Bill & Gary,

    Knowing what you know now, how do you decide what qualities you want in your “Reserve” wines?

  25. Gary Eberle says:

    We make reserves in about 40% of the vintages. It has to be a wine that we can create from an outstanding vintage and different and better than our estate. We have made 14 reserves since 1979.

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