During a 1986 blind tasting of 12 recently released Cabernet sauvignons, most of the 16 tasters praised one particular wine.
But a few were skeptical, saying the wine’s rough tannins were aggressive. One of the tasters, who rated the wine fourth overall, asked rhetorically, “Will the fruit outlast the tannins?”
When we learned that the wine was Randy Dunn’s 1982 Howell Mountain Cabernet, I decided to test the concept: did Randy’s wines have so much tannin that they’d stay hard and astringent long after the fruit had fled? So I brought some and put them in a cool cellar.
In 2002, I tried one of the wines (it was the 20th birthday of the wine). It was fabulous, and could have used more age. So three weeks ago, we tried another. Twelve more years and it was even better!
Dunn wines are some of the few reds that typically age well, we learned after that 1986 tasting, and the same goes for many other wines that are made to be aged. Unfortunately, few modern-day wines are made this way. Most are made to be consumed just a few years after the vintage.
Still, I have chatted with many people who remain convinced that any red wine is better with age. In fact, that wasn’t even true in the 1970s and 1980s.
In those days, folks who cellared their red wines usually looked forward to a Magical Moment decades down the road when they’d pull the cork with great anticipation, only then to find that they had waited too long.
Even in the 1970s, the majority of older red wines failed to live up to expectations. A key reason for that is we often have better memories of grand experiences with wines in which we invest — both money and time. But age has a way of stripping off the fresh fruit flavors first.
And it’s that freshness that often gave us such a taste jolt initially that we were keen to get some for the cellar. Most of that fruit is the first thing to decline.
Another reason many wines do not age as gracefully as we hope is that our cellaring conditions aren’t as ideal as they ought to be. Optimum is 55° to 60° — and a constant temperature is considered best, without fluctuation.
Years ago, I test-stored a few bottles in a “below-the-stairs” closet, with an average temperature of 66°, but which did rise to 72° in the heat of summer.
One wine, a 1986 Napa Valley Cabernet, did well at seven years of age, but served side-by-side with an identical bottle that was aged in the 52° space, it seemed a bit advanced. And a 1988 Chianti from the closet was a lot worse off than was an identical bottle from the cold room.
One key reason that Randy Dunn’s wines hold as well as they do is that they never are very alcoholic. This is a clue to those who’d like to cellar some red wines.
I dislike generalizations, but in this case it sort of works: dry red wines with 12% to 13% alcohol need bottle age of some sort to develop. Dry reds with 13% to 14% may age reasonably well, but at 15% alcohol and above, the chances of the wine gaining very much complexity are reduced.