To Age Or Not to Age
When To Drink Wine Based On Your Palate, Not Theirs
Beauty In The Eye Of The Beholder
In today’s ever-changing media landscape, few forces have kept their influence so constant as that of the American wine critic. Decades after it was established, the “100 Point” scale remains both relevant and controversial. Just as we have different likes and dislikes when it comes to the foods we eat, the same certainly holds true for wine. And although many American wine drinkers enjoy the ripe, lush, round, fruit-forward wines that are often rewarded with high-scores in publications, there are also a large number that prefer lighter, fragrant, more savory-driven bottlings. The “100 Point” scale is an effective tool for the wine critic, marketer, and consumer alike. Still, its inherently subjective nature should be considered.
Reaching Its Peak
The subjectivity of the wine critics’ job is really twofold. In addition to attaching a general score to a wine upon its release, they also often come up with a window of peak drinkability. This is a highly educated guess, a balance of both art and science. Wine critics (and sometimes sommeliers) are treated to retrospective or library tastings put on by estates, importers, and private collectors. Here, they gain context as to how wines from various grapes, regions, vintages, and producers taste later on in their lives. By tying this experience together with components they are sensing in the younger version of a similar wine, they are able to find a range as to when that wine may be tasting especially great. However, this skilled exercise really only applies to a small percentage of wine produced around the world. Americans are known for consuming wines at an especially young age. But sometimes this is okay, as a great variety of wine styles are actually intended to drink early for optimal freshness. So what does make a wine ageable?
Tannins are found in the skins of red grapes (and some whites) and are responsible for providing key structure. Tannins are what make our lips stick to our teeth and our tongue stick to the roof of our mouth after taking a gulp of red wine. They are responsible for the drying sensation that can be unpleasant if wines from more tannic grapes such as Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon are consumed in their youth. Over time, tannins soften, giving the wine a much smoother texture.
Some of the most collectible wines in the world are sweet white wines that naturally possess high levels of sugar. Wines such as Sauternes and sweet German Rieslings can age for decades. As they do, the sugar becomes less obvious, evolving into complex notes of fruit custard and compote.
An extremely pleasurable component of wine, alcohol, is also a preservative. Perhaps the clearest example of the ageability of wine that is high in alcohol is Port. Fortified with brandy, these wines can age for decades, developing amazing fruit and spice character along the way. Port also contains a lot of sugar and tannin, making it especially ageable. Over time, the alcohol will better integrate itself into the wine, so as to be less noticeable.
Acidity can keep certain styles of both white and red wine fresh for the long haul. White wines such as White Burgundy, White Bordeaux, and Dry Chenin Blanc can come off as sharp or austere due to acidity in their youth. Over time, the acidity is softened by nutty tones and becomes more balanced and integrated.
Something In The Air
Aromas and flavors evolve as the wine is exposed to tiny amounts of oxygen as it sits in the bottle. Brash fruit notes in red wines will fade away, giving way to notes of leather, dried flowers, and mushrooms. While a drinker may enjoy the softer structure of an older wine, they may miss the juicy fruit the wine would have possessed in its youth. Certainly the sweet spot is highly personal. Aromas and flavors also change in white wines over time. Fresh, zesty fruit tones reveal more nuts, waxiness, and spice tones. A drinker who enjoys a crisp, mineral wine may not be thrilled by the same wine five years later. As a sommelier, I have seen firsthand the dangers of equating old wine with high-quality young wine. Given the success of fruit-forward wines that are rated highly using the “100 Point” scale, it is clear that a huge number of wine drinkers value a fruit-forward wine. By waiting too long to open a bottle, there’s a risk of losing this pleasing fruitiness. When a wine critic comes up with their drinking window, they are not only guessing how a wine may taste in future years, but they are also generalizing which tastes will make the largest number of their readers happy. Of course, like anything else, it can be almost impossible to please everybody.
Making The Short (And Medium, And Long) List
Here is a general (probably over-general) list of some common wine types in the marketplace, and how long they should hang out before you pull the cork. All of those listed below are red wines, as whites kept for aging tend to be niche, expensive styles, or true dessert wines. It should also be noted that only a small, small minority of wines should be aged more than fifteen or twenty years.
Short Term – Can be a little unsettled for a year or two after bottling, but tend to show great fruit, aromatics, and soft structure within two to four years of harvest
· California Pinot Noir
· California Zinfandel
· California Merlot
· Australian Shiraz
Medium Term – Aromatics will be more open, structure will soften somewhat in the four to eight years after harvest
· Chianti and other medium-bodied Italian reds
· Most Napa Valley Cabernet
· Most Red Burgundy
· Rhone Valley Syrah and Grenache-based wines
Long Term – Highly structured reds that need nine-plus years to allow their tannins to soften and the full array of fruity and savory aromas to unfurl
· High-end Bordeaux
· Nebbiolo from Barolo and Barbaresco in Italy
· Some Napa Valley Cabernet