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The tricky matter of predicting ageability

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On New Year’s Eve I opened a bottle I’d had in my little wine storage unit for some years years: Anthill 2005 Demuth Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Anderson Valley.

I studied the wine, in a Riedel glass, as I walked Gus, on a mild, early winter night in Oakland. It was all right–dry, tart and with some good cherry and cranberry fruit. But it was evident that there were problems, chief among which was a pruny or raisiny finish, along with accompanying heat.

The wine, in short, had not aged well.

I went to Wine Enthusiast’s database and looked up my original review, from July, 2007. I gave the wine 90 points and described it this way: “There are suggestions of wintergreen mint and tart rhubarb, but the cherries save the day, giving enough richness to make the wine interesting. Despite the high acidity and dryness, I don’t think it’s an ager, but it’s a beautifully complex, food-friendly Pinot.”

It’s always gratifying to see that I made a good call (although I can already hear some sourpusses whining that I’m promoting myself). I’ll be the first to concede that I don’t always get things right, especially in the matter of predicting ageabiity. So how do I come up with ageability estimates?

First of all, you can age any wine you want. All that means is putting the bottle someplace for as many years as you want. (Obviously, that place should have proper storage conditions: still, cool and dark, and a little moist.) Most wines, probably 99.9% of them, will not benefit at all from aging; they’re meant to drink as soon as you purchase them.

What of that other .01%? They will age–but what does this mean? We’ve all tasted older Burgundies, Bordeaux, Barolos, Champagnes and the like, and so we know what they can do. In my experience, aging California wine is considerably “iffier.” To take, as examples, the best Cabernets, in the ideal situation they lose their fresh, primary fruit, starting at about eight years, and then begin to dry out, showing “secondary” fruit character and bottle “bouquet.” As the tannins precipitate out, the wine becomes clearer, more translucent, silkier in body (which is perhaps the best thing about aging it).

But aged wine is an acquired taste. I try to keep that in mind when I review a wine. If it’s superbly balanced, rich and tannic (we’re mainly talking reds here), it’s much more likely to age well than a wine that has the slightest imperfection, because that imperfection will only grow increasingly obvious with bottle age. In the case of the Anthill 2005 Demuth, if I recall correctly, my impression that “it’s not an ager” was due to certain imperfections, mainly a touch of raisining in the finish. It does take an experienced palate to discern those slight irregularities that prohibit the wine from aging well. I’m not saying I have a great palate, but it’s an adequate one, and you do learn a few things when you’ve tasted as many wines as I have for so long.

I’d love to have the time and opportunity to taste more old California wine, to see how my predictions panned out. Since we’re on the subject of 2005 red wines, here are some from that vintage that I tasted when they were first released, and to which I gave a “Cellar Selection” designation, meaning that I recommended the wine be aged. I haven’t had any of these wines since, and, since they’re now a little more than eight years old, all should be at that exciting, interesting transition point of losing primary fruit and picking up secondary notes. If any of the proprietors wishes to afford me the pleasure of sending me a bottle, I promise to share the results here in the blog–for better or worse.

Trefethen 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Colgin 2005 IX Estate

Rubicon 2005

Flora Springs 2005 Rennie Reserve

Goldschmidt 2005 Game Ranch Single Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon

Nickel & Nickel 2005 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

Far Niente 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Kendall-Jackson 2005 Highlands Estate Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

Hanzell 2005 Chardonnay

Chardonnay? Yes, every once in a while a California Chardonnay is worth aging. Which brings up an interesting point. How do I know Hanzell Chardonnay is ageable? Because I’ve had old ones, up to 20 years in age, and they can be remarkable. Does that knowledge influence my appraisal of the wine? Absolutely. Why would it not? On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection designations to Chardonnays that I’ve never had the opportunity to taste when they’d been properly aged: Joseph Phelps 2011 Freestone Chardonnay, for example. While I’ve only had that wine as a new release, I’d bet my bottom dollar it’s good for at least eight years–and I wouldn’t mind trying it in 2023, when it will be 12 years old. And then, there’s Hartford Court 2005 Stone Côte Vineyard Chardonay. That wine is now eight years old; I sure would like to see if my Cellar Selection call was right on, or an unmitigated disaster.

  1. Steve, I think many more wines (in terms of individual labels rather than strictly volume) benefit from bottle age than people give credit. How much, I don’t know? But I bet it is way more than 0.1% of all wines. I don’t necessarily mean Generic Wine is going to improve over 5-25 years, but maybe 2-3 years. I’ve followed cases of cheap (~$5) wine over the course of a few years and often found things enjoy beyond the “drink now” description many critics hastily assign. Predicting when to drink a wine is quite difficult (if not impossible) because taste is so subjective and personal. As for your list of 2005 cellar selections, I had the Colgin last year (during my research for my PH article) and thought it was in a great place and would continue to age for years to come.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    The key to my thinking is that without natural acidity (and correspondingly low Ph), a wine will crack up within ten years–and this has been confirmed for me twice in tastings of 1994 Parker 98 to 100 point Cabs.

    To milk every bit of ripeness out of a vintage is to necessitate a large acid adjustment, and this added acid never seems to be an organic, truly inherent component of the wine. When these wines are new, the massive amounts of fruit, oak and alcohol tend to mask their disjointed character, but every year in bottle it becomes more and more apparent, and a decade later most are shot.

  3. Jeff Stewart says:

    Hi Steve – Let’s set a date to taste some 2005 Stone Cote Chardonnay – and maybe a few others! The 2005 chards are holding nicely!

  4. It’s probably true that most wines don’t “improve” with age, but all wines do change with age, and those changes can be desirable with many wines. Aging wines is part of the adventure, not a hoped-for cause and effect.

  5. Patrick, improve is in the eye of the beholder. Someone that wants loads of fruit and tannin isn’t very likely to want 10+ years on their wine. I often find age adds some level of complexity to a wine.

  6. Bill Haydon, your comment is very adroit. I totally agree!

  7. Excellent article. I really enjoy your takes on ageability of wine.

    I echo a lot of the comments that the natural acidity of a wine is a great predictor of ageability. And I’m not trying to be a dick about it, but it’s spelled pH

  8. george kaplan says:

    Well-aged wines acquire textural characteristics of smell and taste, especially of texture, that make them memorable with food, and in the greatest cases, on their own. On Christmas Day we had Berkshire pork loin with a 2000 Richebourg from Gros Frere. The sides were grilled sweet potatoes, corn pudding and haricots verts. The blend of flavors and textures with the autumnal and velvety Burgundy was indescribable,so I won’t try. We followed with a standing rib roast with the 2003 Palmer: the Bordeaux needed another 5 or so years but was getting the Bordeaux texture that goes so well with beef. I tasted both wines when I bought them about 7 years ago: no comparison.

  9. George Kaplan, you’re a lucky guy! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Great article Steve. I’m curious about your take on aging Rieslings. Do you have any indicators you use when accessing the aging potential of a bottle?

  11. Mitch Cosentino says:

    Over the past two mon ths I have been opening many wines in my cellar from the 80′s and 90′s that I felt had aging potential. For the most part a high percentage have aged and I must say further developed thru time in virtually perfect storage conditions. This includes wines that I have collect from all over the world and wines that I have made. I have also saved a few that I didn’t think would age as well for the research and education of such. Ocassionally I get surprised in both cases, but for the most part I have gotten it right. I have always said I don’t mind losing some bottles to catch wines that are just right, which to me is a wonderful experience that most don’t get to enjoy. The most exciting are the white wines. Many would be surprised, maybe even shocked. One note the older wines there can be bottle variation the older they get, two may be great, and then a third could be “old”
    Also with acid adjustments if they are made at crush prior to fermentation they are often times never noticed. Adjustments after fermentation can take on an almost “salty” note.
    Steve, if you ever have some time in Napa let me know and I will pull out a few aged bottles of fun just to taste.

  12. Kevin Ross: I think almost any good Riesling with enough acidity will last in the bottle.

  13. george kaplan says:

    The more I practice the luckier I get. Plus we have a strict division of labor: my wife lets me open the wine. Your follow-up today about Hugh Johnson’s categories and Samantha Sans Dosage’s( Major plug: amazing blog, if possibly Distracting For Work ) cocktail wines vs food wines both bring up the major shift in notions of ” What wine is for”, that have existed long since but have become most relevant in The common Era, ie After Bob. BB, Before Bob, even those who us who were interested in wine looked at it mostly as a part of gastronomy: food AND wine , together, in what we hoped for was harmony. In the AB era, the love of wine has diverged, in social situations and I suspect in the realm of well-heeled collectors , to the Cocktail / meal dichotomy. For me terroir, besides its intrinsic interest, is a matter of pairing wine with food. Italian food tastes better with Italian wine, because they come from the same gastronomic tradition and the same soil( i know this is contested these days). ‘American” food, whatever that may be, and american wine, are so young in the big picture that there isn’t, and may never be, the kind of complementarity we see in Europe. OTOH, We tasted that 2003 Palmer against a 1985 Martha’s a couple of months ago, with beef fillet, and I couldn’t get over how similar in tonality and texture the wines were, although the California wine had earth and sage and the Bordeaux forest floor and ( the 85 is a creamy. Palmer-like Martha’s ): both had current and blackberry fruit and could easily have passed for each other blind.

  14. george kaplan says:

    Ps: all the wines mentioned were bought for $60-$80. Alas, those were the days.

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Steve:

    I have a wine cellar reorganization client who recently “gifted” me with old bottles of Stony Hill Chardonnays: 1976 and 1996 and 2002. The 1976 tastes younger than the 1996: the former being a drought year that produced incredibly deeply-flavored white and tannic red wines. Stony Hill doesn’t induce malolactic fermentation, so the naturally high level of acidity has “preserved” that wine into its senior citizen years. (Really old bottles of Stony Hill Chards take on an old Sauternes-like tawny color. But many are still “alive” and kickin’.)

    To Bill Haydon:

    For those with access to them, go back and retaste the 1985 vintage California Cabernet Sauvignons. Too many well-regarded winemakers of that era acidified their wines (because the UC Davis “playbook” instructed them to do so). Tasted in later years, the result was a mean-streak of unnatural acidity the stands apart from the rest of the wine. Ugh!

    To Kevin Ross:

    I have another wine cellar reorganization client who owns 110 mixed cases of German Rieslings. (No, that’s not a typo. Also over 50 mixed cases of Alsace whites. Don’t get me started on his Loire whites . . . or red Burgundies . . . or red Bordeaux . . . or anything else he fanatically hordes — ‘cuse me — “collects.”)

    German and Alsace Rieslings don’t go through malolactic fermentation. That naturally high level of acidity, combined with elevated sugar levels, help extend the shelf life of those white wines.

    Robert Parker, quoted in a Wine Times magazine interview (September/October 1989), had this to say about aging wine:

    “. . . how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.

    “If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that’s an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] “dry out,” it’s debatable then whether that’s a great vintage.

    “Most people are hung up on wines that are brawny and tannic. One thing I’m certain about in the wine business is that wines are often too tannic. People perceive that all that tannin is going to melt away and this gorgeous fruit will emerge. But that rarely ever happens. The good wines in good vintages not only have the depth but also the precociousness. I used to think some of the softer ones wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, but they get more and more interesting. Most California wines are not only overly acidified, but the type of tannins they have in most of their Cabernets — whether the vines are too immature, the climate is different, whatever — are too hard, too astringent. And you see that even in the older ones. . . .”

    Master Sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson had this to say about aging wine:

    “QUESTION: How long should you age a wine?

    “ANDREA ANSWERS: Maybe you remember the Paul Masson ads that proudly proclaimed, ‘We will sell no wine before its time.’ But how long should you age a wine?

    “A commonly-quoted trade statistic states that the average American consumer ages their wine 17 minutes — the amount of time it takes to get the bottle home and the cork pulled! I don’t have proof, but I wouldn’t doubt it. And for most wines, that’s perfectly appropriate. Ninety-five percent of wines on the market are meant to be enjoyed within one two three years of bottling, while they are young and fresh.

    “The other five percent or so are wines that can actually improve with aging (otherwise, what’s the point?). These major categories are the best aging candidates:

    • Red Burgundy (top estates)
    • Sauternes & other dessert wines
    • California Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Red Bordeaux (Chateaux estates)
    • vintage Port

    “In excellent vintages, red Burgundy hits its stride at 5-7 years’ age. The best Sauternes peak at around 7 to 10 years, as do great California Cabernets. Top red Bordeaux just begin to show their greatness at 10 years (and in some cases 20!), and vintage Port is believed to be “ready” finally at 20 years and older. Alcohol, acidity, tannin and sugar are wine’s natural preservatives. The best agers typically have a high proportion of at least some of these components — the more the better for a long aging period.

    “Of course, the Golden Rule is: drink the wine whenever you’d like to. It’s your personal taste that counts. And no one wants to pass up the opportunity to taste a great wine — even if it’s technically ‘too young’!

    “Here’s a great saying about wine aging that my mentor Kevin Zraly loves to quote:

    ” ‘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!’

    “Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?

    Better to drink a maturing wine on its way “up,” than on its way “down.”

    And don’t forget the observation:

    “There are no good wines, only good bottles.”

    Link: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/category/numerical-scoring/

    Underscored by Mitch Cosentino’s comment about variability within a case of aging wine.

    ~~ Bob

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