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Aging Cabernet Sauvignon

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When I was a wine critic, I used to say that nobody really knows how these opulent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons will age, because the world had never seen wines quite like them (in ripeness, in fruity phenolic richness, in tannic quality, in alcohol level, in softness), and so there was no evidence upon which to base any conclusions.

Granted, I played the prediction game—when you’re a wine critic, you have to, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon. But I was never terribly comfortable saying that such-and-such a wine would be better fifteen or twenty years down the road, and so, by the early 2000s, I began shortening my window of ageability. Instead of advising (as some other critics did) to hold that Cab until 2027 or some equally far-off date in the future, I became considerably more guarded; my window tightened to maybe eight years or a little bit longer. This wasn’t just because of some intellectual hedging of bets; it was also because of my own experiences in pulling older Cabs from my cellar and finding that they hadn’t age well.

So it was pleasing to read the comment of Michael Weis, Groth’s winemaker since 1994, that “We don’t know how these wines will age.” That’s a frank statement and Weis is to be commended. It was in an article by Laurie Daniel, of the San Jose Mercury News, whose experiences apparently match mine, for she wrote: “I’ve found that some of the riper Napa Cabs from other producers start to fade after just a few years.”

We’ll never conclusively resolve this question of “To age or not to age,” but a little objectivity is helpful. The concept of aging wine, especially in Bordeaux, arose because until fairly recently viticulture and enology were simply not advanced enough to tame the tannins that Cabernet Sauvignon (and other red Bordeaux variety) grapes can imbue in the wines. Through time and experimentation, people discovered that aging the wines in a proper cellar—cool, damp and dark—allowed the tannins to precipitate out, as sediment, which is why the modern wine bottle evolved to include the “punt” at the bottom.

Well, aging Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon became an idée fixe in the minds, first, of tastemakers (merchants, writers, collectors) and from them it migrated into the minds of the average consumer. I’ve always thought it remarkable and odd how many strange conceptions the average wine drinker has about aging wine. No more than one or two percent of the world’s wines ever “need” aging to begin with (whatever “need” means), but I’d wager that most people think that any wine will improve if you age it.

With these big, lush and luscious Cabernets that California is now making, we really have to abandon the pretense that Cab needs age. But wait, there’s more! I’ll go one step further and say we have to abandon the notion that, if a Cab isn’t ageable, it somehow occupies a lower rung on the ladder of nobility. This is a mistake commonly arrived at by a kind of intellectual default: One starts the thinking process with old-fashioned ideas about ageability that are no longer relevant to our times. Then one holds onto those ideas despite the fact that they don’t conform to reality—and winds up blaming the wine for not being ageable in line with one’s conceptions, instead of blaming himself for applying anachronistic thinking to our modern times.

Anyway, welcome to my brain: This is the kind of stuff I think about. Have a great weekend!

  1. Eric Jensen says:

    The history of aging dates back to when winemakers didn’t have the modern tools we now possess, so they simply picked early so fermentations didn’t stick and heavy microbial activity didn’t start. If they were able to pick more phenolically developed they would have. The items that go into aging have very little to do with what is spoken about above. The main components (factual per actual scientists) are reductive strength, (the ability to give lots of oxygen early to build its ability to age), VA (need a lower number here so it doesn’t overtake the wine as fruit dissipates), Acid (a stable PH of 3.4-3.7 better than higher, as well as higher TA) and ample tannins that have polymerized to anthocynnins. We can literally measure all these items now and take out the guesswork. Here’s my problem with the aristocratic wine world dating back to the British press. “A great wine needs to be aged to be great”. That is a factual joke, lie and ignorance. The wool was pulled over our eyes for years by winemakers that over extracted their tannins or picked with too much acid and green flavors. So it became the consumers responsibility to age their mistake just to make it consumable. If you truly like secondary, more tertiary flavors than aging is good for you. If you like fresher, more ripe flavors (like approximately 90% of females) then young wine is better. The fact, a wine should be seamless off the bottling line and also have the ability to age for 30 years with the information we now have at our fingertips, but it’s laughable to say a wine needs to age to be drinkable. That is purely subjective and a large reason why most Americans chose to grab a beer over wine.

  2. Dear Eric Jensen, of course you are right in everything you say. I would just add that it’s not just 90% of females who enjoy fresh, fruity wines, it’s most males, too.

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