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The connection between high scores and ageability

18 comments

 

It’s funny that I never really thought about it until recently, when I was browsing through my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database and realized that I had chosen the special designation of “Cellar Selection” for about 80% of my highest scoring wines.

If you’d asked me what parameters form the basis of a high score (let’s say anything above 95 points), I would have referred you to the magazine’s guidelines. They say things like “truly superb,” “great complexity,” “memorable,” “pinnacle of expression,” “complete harmony and balance,” “absolute best,” but the guidelines are silent on the question of ageability.

Had you pressed me to more fully explain a high score, I suppose at some point the “A” word would have arisen. But in and of itself, “ageability” does not equal great wine. Many wines will age, some for a long time, yet are not particularly complex or beautiful, either in youth or in old age.

And yet, my highest scoring wines, from this year alone, include Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Pinot Noir, Rochioli 2011 West Block Pinot Noir, Freemark Abbey 2009 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet, Flora Springs 2010 Hillside Reserve Cabernet, Tantara 2010 Gwendolyn Pinot Noir, Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey, Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Cabernet, Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet, B Cellars 2009 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet, Jarvis 2007 Estate Cabernet, Von Strasser 2010 Sori Bricco Cabernet, Sodaro 2009 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet, and, another Beckstoffer coup, Janzen 2010 Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard Cabernet. All 95 points or higher, all Cellar Selections.

What I look for in predicting ageability are two things, or three, depending on how you define them. First is an immediate reaction (from the nose/palate via the brain) of stunned impressionability. It’s a simple “Wow!” factor, although of course there’s nothing simple about it. Now, any wine can possess the “Wow!” factor without being ageable. A lot of it has to do with what Dr. Leary called “set and setting,” i.e. where you are (the external circumstances) and your mindset (subjective factors). A silky Beaujolais, like the one I had the other night, achieved the “Wow!” factor, because it was a warm evening, I had slightly chilled the bottle, and with it I enjoyed a soy-glazed tuna burger (homemade) and the company of someone special to me. But that Beaujolais was not an ageable wine, and if I were scoring it, I would have given it around 90.

The next thing I look for, in determining ageability, is an immature quality that makes the wine, good as it is, undrinkable, this latter word used in the old British sense of “too young to enjoy now” (although I’m always careful to point out that even a California wine that’s “too young to enjoy now” is, of course, enjoyable now, if you like it that way. The Cellar Police will not slap you into Guantanamo). What makes a wine “too young now,” for me, are, usually, dense tannins that numb the palate, but this is not so great a problem as it used to be (in California or in France) because modern tannin management regimes render even the hardest tannins more mellifluous (the adjective “mellifluous” being a good example of its own definition). A greater problem is what I call the unintegrated quality of a young wine’s parts. Those parts include oak, fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannins, and if they feel (in the mouth) like a herd of cats, each going its own way, resistant to corralling, then the wine is unintegrated. A subset of this is that California fruit can be overwhelming in youth, a detonation of jam that makes them too obvious–“Tammy Faye Bakker,” in the words of a Frenchman I know who crafts wines (or seeks to) of greater finesse and control.

The final aspect of determining ageability is the history and reputation of the winery. I make the previous two determinations blind, but this third factor weaves its way in when I take the bottle out of its covering bag. If I’ve already determined that the wine is ageable, that is going to appear in the review; but if I then see that it’s a wine I know for a fact ages well (say, a Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir), that seals the deal, as they say. In general, I don’t like to stretch the window of ageability too far into an uncertain future (the way RMP does), but if I know the wine has a good history of hitting, say, 10 or 20 years, I’ll say so. (Corison Cabernets are a good example of this.) Which obviously makes it difficult when the wine is a new brand, without history, of which there are many, particularly in those bastions of ageability, Napa Valley Cabernet and cool-climate Pinot Noir. But, going through my highest-scoring wines, I see very few new brands among them. Mostly they are the older, traditional names, which is just as you’d expect.

  1. I’m curious: do you test your age-ability predictions over a period of years?

  2. dr: Impossible. No wine critic can.

  3. Doesn’t Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate do retrospective tastings to see how wines have aged?

  4. doug wilder says:

    Kyle,

    Wine Advocate does this in California. For a time that was Parker’s prime domain before announcing he was coming back to do Northern California. Charlie Olken at Connoisseurs’ Guide looks at 10 year old cabs every year. Far from impossible as Steve claims, it just takes a lot of dedication and planning. A recent 15 year vertical tasting of Dyer Cabernet Sauvignon from Diamond Mountain got me interested in thinking about adding more of this type of retrospective review to my writing.

  5. Doug, my point was that it isn’t impossible. Yes, it takes a lot of work and coordination, but anyone saying a wine is a cellar selection should be tasting to check on ageability predictions.

  6. Steve,

    Very interesting article. Ageability is one wine topic I have been pretty obsessed with over the past year or two.

    I am curious about your comment about wines that seem a bit disjointed when young often foreshadow that they will come together well when they age. I remember when I was first discovering wine, I learned the oversimplification that “tannins give wine the ability to age”, before reading that harsh tannins are harsh tannins, and might never go away. I am wondering if you’ve had that same experience with disjointed wines; i.e. some of them come together over time, while others stay disjointed forever?

  7. gabe, I have had that experience. The complication is that one is unable to retaste (years later) every wine whose ageability one wonders about.

  8. doug wilder says:

    Kyle,

    I think Steve points out in his last paragraph the intangible value of following a brand for a number of years to help determine the quality and likelihood of aging well. Although he doesn’t specifically address a strict methodology to routinely taste wines retrospectively, I am confident he, like most critics who have been doing it for a while, has developed the facility to integrate and interpolate characteristics he finds in particular wines compared to those he has tasted at other points in their evolution that helps develop a snapshot of ageability.

  9. Steve,

    I understand why you can’t go back and taste everything. My question was more along the lines of: how do you know if a wine will come together? With tannins, I believe that they do help ageability, but need to be integrated into the wine, not just be big and bold. I agree with your idea that wine that are built to last often show various desirable characteristics when young, but are not always harmonious. Are there any traits you can look for that will clue you in to whether a wine will “come together”?

  10. Bob Henry says:

    “Fact checking”:

    James Laube at Wine Spectator does 10 and 20 year retrospective tastings of California Cabernets.

    Robert Parker at Wine Advocate has done 10 and 20 year retrospective tastings of California Cabernets.

    So the precedent is well-established at the other publications.

    Individual collectors (such as myself — see http://www.kirktech.com/bob_henry/) also research and organize and host such retrospective tasting events.

    (I would like to think that such events happen with some regularity up in the California wine country — and Steve, you get invited.)

    Does it take a hellacious amount of time to track down bottles from wineries and wine auctions and private cellars?

    Yes. (From my experience, about 40 hours — or the equivalent of a work week — to do it right.)

    Is it worth it?

    Yes. (For the first-hand — not “book” — knowledge and camaraderie.)

    I have criticized Wine Spectator on its “letters to the editor” page and in private correspondence to Marvin Shanken for projecting future scores and “age-ability” of California Cabernets, based solely on barrel samples . . . and later their never coming close to replicating those numbers (points and years) in their 10 or 20 year retrospective tastings.

    An observation from New York wine educator Kevin Zraly, as quoted by his most accomplished protégé, Master Sommelier Andrea Immer:

    “The English drink their wines too old, because they like to impress people by showing them all the dusty old bottles in their cellars. The French drink their wines too young because they’re afraid the Socialist government will take them away. And Americans drink their wine at just the right time — because they don’t know any better!”

    Very few wines truly make (invoking a “Parker-ism”) “old bones.”

  11. I just opened a number of wines this week that I have had in my cellar for 30 to 40 years. A general conclusion… if the wine was big, intense, but coarse or tannic, they are still tannic and coarse…just old, tannic and coarse. If the wine was balanced when young, round and agreeable it is now either over the hill or it is wonderful.

    The thing in predicting agibility for the latter wines is unrelated to tannins or alcohol or reputation or wow factor. It all has to do with persistent youthful qualities. If the wine tasted much younger that one would expect, like a four year old wine tasting like it was only two, then the wines continued to age more slowly. It cannot be ascribed to any one factor in the wine,certainly not tannin, but an unknown combination allows it to keep bright flavors and color.

    The critics raved about the big bold 1974 wines, they are completely faded now.(your off the hook, Steve you were probably in grade school) But the lighter and more delicate 1975’s are holding their own.

    A more recent example of this is to taste the 1998 wines today from the best Napa Valley estates, wines from well drained soils or hillsides. They were generally panned by critics upon released despite the fact that they were softer and surprisingly youthful, but they are stunning now.

  12. gabe, it’s very difficult, particularly with California wines that have so little history behind them. Also we still don’t fully understand the effect of high alcohol. Those Inglenooks, Martinis, Charles Krugs and BVs that aged so well from the 1940s and 1950s were in the 11s and 12s I believe whereas now most Cabs are in the 14s if not the 15s with few exceptions. I wish there were easy answers concerning ageability but maybe it doesn’t matter since 99% of wines are consumed early.

  13. Steve, I didn’t mean “all”. I meant “any”.
    I would expect you need such practical experience to gauge age ability of young wines

  14. I hadn’t considered the effects of alcohol. Thanks for answering my questions as best you could.
    Like I said, I have spent a lot of time thinking about ageability lately. I’m still not sure if it’s better to assume that a good wine will age well, or to look for “green banana” wines, which might not taste great young but show characteristics of ageability. And if so, what are the characteristics you are looking for? For a long time I was really hung up on acidity, but now I am starting to think more about overall composition. It’s still not a fully formulated thought, so I appreciate you taking some time to write about the subject, and answer some of my questions.
    Cheers!

  15. Patrick says:

    Steve, what do you think about Ph value as a clue to age-worthiness? I have seen the number 3.55 bandied about as a possible upper limit.

  16. Bob Henry says:

    Morton offers sage advice:

    “I just opened a number of wines this week that I have had in my cellar for 30 to 40 years. A general conclusion… if the wine was big, intense, but coarse or tannic, they are still tannic and coarse…just old, tannic and coarse. If the wine was balanced when young, round and agreeable it is now either over the hill or it is wonderful.”

    It was the British press (as lapdogs of the Bordeaux producers) who “convinced” us gullible Americans that young red Bordeaux must, per force, be tart/sour/tannic wines in their youth to make “old bones.”

    To his credit, Robert Parker early in his wine writing career pushed back against that notion.

    There is nothing that precludes an “approachable” wine in its youth from aging nicely.

    Go back and re-read interviews with André Tchelistcheff on this subject.

    (A good start? A book that Steve is well-acquainted with: “Great Winemakers of California” by Bob Benson –- a friend and former colleague of mine at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.)

    For those seeking superior older vintage California Cabernets, look for 1976 and 1978 and 1991 and 1999. They have stood the test of time. (But don’t deprive yourself of tasting excellent condition bottles from 1968s and 1974s for comparison.)

    See Corie (Zester Daily) Brown’s 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times on the subject of acquiring older wines today:

    “Older California Cabernets are within reach at auction – Los Angeles”

    [Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/la-fo-wine23apr23,0,4955529,print.story

  17. Patrick,

    In my opinion, pH is the biggest clue to ageability, although my previous comments might clue you in to the fact that I am still developing a lot of my ideas.

    A red wine with a pH below 3.60 is safe from microbial spoilage, so in that respect it is indeed an important factor in ageability. However, that is even an antiquated concept, since lots of red wines go through cross-flow filtration before bottling. In my experience, bigger wines (and a high pH will make a wine seem bigger & riper) that are cross-flowed for stability tend to fall apart after a few years, although my sample size is pretty small.

    For white wines that have not gone thru ML, the pH is usually around 3.20, while high acid wines like riesling can go below 3.00. So with those wines, microbial stability becomes less of an issue.

    The last thing I will bore you with is the effects of acidity vs. oxidation, which tend to balance each other. Therefore, high acid (low pH) wines have one more factor that allows them to age with a little more grace.

  18. I will agree with Patrick although I will also add that looking at pH maybe one of several factors which include tannins as mentioned above and sulfur dioxide among others. This is may explain why many old Bordeaux’s lasted so long. The question is will the new Bordeaux’s last as long? If you soften a wine with micro oxygenation will it last as long? One of the great things about wine is that it is always mysterious, who likes it now and who will like it several years down the road. I like my wine with a little bite and funk, secondary aromas can be nice but don’t go to smooth on me.

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