subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

On the anomalies of aging wine



Alan Balik has written a good analysis of tasting young wines in today’s Napa Register. Here’s my approach, which also is the one I took when I was reviewing California wines at Wine Enthusiast.

I start with the declaration that the best way to determine if a wine is going to age well is by knowing the history of the winery. This is easy in the case of (let’s say for example) a Chateau Latour. We have hundreds of years of records by wine professionals attesting to Latour’s longevity, so it’s reasonable to state that if a young Latour, from a good vintage, is balanced to begin with, it will age for a very long time.

In California, of course, we have nothing comparable to Latour’s history. The best we can do is turn to a winery like Beaulieu. Its Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon has been around since the mid-1930s, and we know—well, I know, because I’ve been to multiple vertical tastings of it—that the wine also ages beautifully. It’s pretty much of a slam dunk for its first fifteen years. After that, it gets spottier due to vintage variations and the condition of the individual bottle. But still, it’s safe to predict fifteen years on a good Private Reserve, despite all the changes in vinification, etc. that have occurred over the decades.

Now let’s say that somebody plants a new vineyard right next to Beaulieu’s, in Rutherford. We’ll call it Chateau Gus. They make a Cabernet that’s pretty much identical to Private Reserve in style. Will it age? If we knew nothing else about the wine, we’d have to hedge our bets, wouldn’t we, and say something like “It seems like this should age well, but given the wine’s absence of any provenance, we can’t guarantee it.” However, if we knew it was right next door to Beaulieu, that would increase the odds of the wine aging well.

So far, so good. Now, let’s make things a little more complicated. Let’s take a wine like Jonata’s El Alma de Jonata Red, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. It’s an extraordinary wine—I gave the 2007 96 points when I reviewed it in late 2012—but it’s from a place in the Santa Ynez Valley that has almost no history whatsoever of growing great, ageworthy red Bordeaux blends. So in my review, I resisted the temptation to predict its longterm future. At that point, when it was a little more than five years old, it was so lovely, it seemed to me there was no point in submitting it to the potential ravages of age.

But maybe that Jonata will march on and on to multi-decade beauty. Who knows? This is the risk of such prognostication. Of course, if I’d advised readers to hold the wine until, say, 2027, it might have been utterly undrinkable by then—but what would an outraged reader do, hunt me down and sue me? The problem of ageability is particularly difficult to determine in a young Pinot Noir, much of which in California comes from wineries that are less than ten years old (and the wines often are made from young vines). I think of the Pinots from the Santa Rita Hills, which are so tangy and delicious. We do have the example of Sanford & Benedict, which I know from personal experience ages well; but this does not necessarily translate to wines from (say) Clos Pepe, Fiddlehead or Sea Smoke, whose clones and vineyard management practices are so different. Are these twenty year wines? Ten year wines? I have no problem feeing reasonably certain that they’re six year wines, maybe even eight—but predicting them into their second decade seems to me to be much more perilous.

Anyway, most Americans don’t age wines for a long time. Most of the people I know live in cities, which means apartments or condos. They may have a temperature-controlled storage unit, but they don’t have anything that could properly be called a cellar, so even if they wanted to store a wine for twenty years, they couldn’t. Winemakers understand the realities of modern-day America, and are crafting their wines accordingly. Tannin management methodology enables them to produce wines that are drinkable right out of the bottle, or at any rate within a couple of years. And what does “drinkable” mean, anyhow? A wine that’s tannic and acidic when young might melt deliciously with pork belly, making aging irrelevant.

  1. redmond barry says:

    I’m looking forward to the delicate terroir of wet dog from a nicely-matured chateau Gus.

  2. I got encouraged to open more 1980-90 saga Napa Cabs from my recent and positive experience with the 1999 V. Sattui Cab. I took it to a restaurant, and when it stayed in the decanter for about 40 minutes, and I had it with my Cassoulet de Toulouse entree, it was delicious and very satisfying for me. This bottle wore a Gold Metal tag of some sort on the neck and had been preserved in its original wooden box for the last 15 years. Do wood boxes/crates do the tricks to preserve age-able bottles? Pls share with me if you have your two cents to throw in.

    Since my b-day is coming up, I have the legitimate excuse to dig out a couple of good & old stuffs to serve myself on the occasion. So I started my own Georges de Latour PR Cab “vertical” tasting of vintages 1988, 1993 & 1994. Well, I did not pamper these babies with what they’d deserved, a perfect-temperature cooler; I simply counted on the natural cooler of a SF basement to do the job.

    94 is very presentable, but like the taste difference in Early Girl tomatoes of now versus 4 weeks ago, the juicy tantalization was lacking. The 88 vintage, as you can imagine, was nerve-racking because I was not sure if it was still alive. I decided to try what I heard about the two-hour decanting from a friend when he treated his vintage Bordeaux. It opened up with some acidity and crisp peppery taste and eventually perked up with some structure and delightful fruitiness. The gradual awakening-process of it is such a beautiful thing for my senses to soak in – like the moment of being mesmerized by the Sleeping Beauty.

    So I stopped right there and will open the 1993 vintage a few day later when our Giants gets the World Series Championship. Cheers to birthdays & Cabs & SF Giants!

  3. Bob Henry says:


    In my role as a wine cellar organizer for collectors, let me add my 2¢ worth:

    “Do wood boxes/crates . . . preserve age-able bottles?”

    In a word: “No.”

    The wood box has no insulating properties. So improper storage is just as much an issue with wood boxes as it is with cardboard boxes.

    As W. Blake Grey pointed out in an article for the Los Angeles Times, the principle contribution of decanting is blowing off the sulfur compounds in a wine that mask the underlying aromatics.


    ~~ Bob

  4. Thanks Bob, and thanks for forwarding the article.

  5. Bob Henry says:


    If you are an fan of older California Cabs, then seek them out at wine auctions or private party sales from collectors:

    Most collectors exhibit amnesia about earlier vintages, by pass them by..

    And yet some of the greatest Cabs in our state’s winemaking history came from the 1970s and 1980s.

    And they are well worth buying and drinking today, as they were fashioned in a “claret-style.” (Read: less ripe, less extracted, more acidic.)

    We give too much credit to the French for age-able Bordeaux. We give too little to our our handcrafted wines/.

    Shout-out to Bill Dyer if he is following this blog entry: as a 30-year veteran of winemaking in Napa, wish to express your thoughts on the Cabs from the 1970s and 1980s?

    ~~ Bob

  6. Bob Henry, when I read your post to Dawnine, her response was “just what we need, someone encouraging you.” Yes, of course I have something to say about this. For starters, I have to say (at the risk of revealing high mileage) it is actually now 40 years that I have been making wine in Napa Valley. Then I can report that yesterday afternoon I stopped in at the bar at Solage here in Calistoga after an afternoon workout. I was about to shoot a dirty look at a group making a lot of noise in the restaurant, who had been there since lunch. First I recognized Nils Venge, then Mike Martini, Ed Sebragia, and Marchello Montichelli. I ambled over to shame them about my workout. These guys have even more mileage than me, and made some of those Cabernets in the 70’s and 80’s that are still aging beautifully. I recall talking to Ed in the late 70’s about his target brix, and he said 23 brix for most Beringer Cab, but 24 brix for Private Reserve. In those days that was the norm. Now we have hipster winemakers picking at uber-ripe brix levels. There are even reports of some adding port to Cabs to bolster the mouth feel and ramp up the fruitiness. This seems to be all about the points awarded upon release and ageability does not seem important to them. Seems like there’s even a generational divide…a different sense of irony prevails. Adding port to Cabernet—really?

    Then this morning I ran into Mark Carter, who told me about tasting yesterday a 1959 Charles Krug Cab that was delicious. Wines of this era were made with a balance that allowed them to become more interesting over the decades.

    Probably the wine, other than our own, most represented in our cellar is Cathy Corison’s Cab. We trade wines with her frequently. It is great that Cathy has become the spokesperson for making Napa Cabs with balance and restraint. Recently we opened her 2004 Kronos. It was wonderful, and I would like to see it again 10 years from now. I think we share with Cathy a sensibility that making wine that gains interest over the years is a good thing. I think we even share a sense of obligation: if you have vineyards that produce wines that can develop over time, you need to make them to do so rather than trick them out so they stand out in the big line-up of new releases offered up to the critics.

    Recently I have had chances to taste Napa Cabs from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. Wow, this is like time travel. Some of them outlived the people who made them.

  7. Bill,
    Love Dawnine’s response to your reading that to her. Where’s the “rolling the eyes” and “sarcastic smirk” icons when I need them!!! 🙂
    I think that one of the characteristics that’s so important in the ageibility of a wine, as you point out, is the “balance”; something most of us can recognize, but damnably difficult to define. Alas, oftentimes wines showing balance are not very dramatic upon release and often don’t capture the attention of many of the critics, where power & intensity are taken to be the hallmarks of a great Cabernet. But Cabs that show that balance in their youth will carry that with them thru their entire life, in most cases.

  8. Bill wrote:

    “Bob Henry, when I read your post to Dawnine, her response was ‘just what we need, someone encouraging you.'”

    [Did I hear a rim shot here? Bada bing! Plug this link into your browser:

    And: “There are even reports of some adding port to Cabs to bolster the mouth feel and ramp up the fruitiness.”

    If I recall my history correctly, there was a time when the Bordeaux producers added red Rhone to their wines to amp up the fruitiness.

    Tom, et. al.:

    Excerpts from Wine Times Magazine [later renamed Wine Enthusiast Magazine] (September/October 1989) interview with Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate:

    “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. . . .”

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. – Bob]

    I was recently “gifted” with some 1960s and 1970s California Cabs from a wine cellar reorganization client. (He kept the Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyards” for himself. As they say, momma didn’t raise no fool.)

    I’ve opened some Louis Martini and some Beaulieu Vineyards bottles and they are fully mature — but not close to “dying.”

    Very much “claret-like” (a style Bill has said he aspires to in his own wines).

    This is why I take every opportunity to “shill” for these “Golden Age of Winemaking” Cabernets in blog comments: If you have never tasted a well-cellared decades-old bottle of California Cab, you have no “internal reference” / “north star” to go by in guiding your assessment of our states wines.

    I suspect that even Bill Haydon (who has taken contemporary California Cabs to task for being over-the-top) would find favor with these wines.

    So seek out older Cabs from “Martha’s Vineyard” and “Fay Vineyard” and “Eisele Vineyard” and “Grace Family Vineyard” and “Monte Bello Vineyard” . . . and revel in the experience.

    (At a tariff much less than contemporary releases from some of those vineyards.)

    ~~ Bob

  9. OK Bob Henry, Master of the Links (not talking about golf here) your “rimshot” reference eludes me. I’m not that much of a sports guy, so what is it you are saying? My comment bounced off the rim instead of making a swoosh?

  10. Bob Henry says:


    In stand-up comedy, a joke — Dawnine’s response of “just what we need, someone encouraging you” — is “punctuated” by a drum kit “rimshot” by the band.


    No reference to “roundball” here.


Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts