That phrase “like fine old wine” has less relevance today than it ever did — because no one really ages red wines the way they were aged decades ago.
The current mode is to drink ’em young, and part of this relates to home sizes.
Aging of wine never has been a widely practiced activity in the United States, and since most people haven’t acquired a palate that appreciates older wines, the vast majority of all wine sold in this country is consumed within days if not hours of purchase.
The subject of aged wine came up recently during a luncheon I had with educator and former public relations specialist Paul Wagner, who teaches wine courses at Napa Valley College and just retired from the PR company he founded, Balzac Communications.
Wagner has judged wines around the world, has traveled extensively and notes that wine changed radically in the 25 years he was in the wine PR business.
“Back in the 1980s and well before that, people actually aged wine in a cellar, but that has all changed,” he said.
Wealthy British residents formalized the custom of aging wine in cellars. “They had the space to do it, with their manor houses,” he said, as well as the right (cold) conditions.
“Today, most people live in smaller places — apartments, condos. Look at the average size of ‘affordable’ housing in New York,” he said, where the typical studio apartment is smaller than 1,000 square feet. And tiny homes are all the rage. (One YouTube segment shows a 78-square-foot apartment)
Although the average single-family house in the U.S. has grown in overall size by more than 1,000 square feet since 1973 (to about 2,500 square feet), quite the opposite is true of multifamily buildings, where apartment and condo sizes are shrinking.
Micro-apartments have been featured in magazine articles over the last decade, and creative furniture and appliance makers are now redesigning everything from beds and tables to washing machines and dishwashers to accommodate smaller spaces.
Interior design companies now help those who live in tiny spaces to come up with efficient storage ideas.
“So where is the space to store wine?” asked Wagner. “If you live in a typical New York apartment, you may have a ‘cellar,’ but it’s a few bottles that you stash in a closet or under the bed so you can have a bottle if you have unexpected guests.”
Nor are temperatures in apartments ideal for aging of wines over several years.
As a result, he said, the most popular wines today are those that don’t need any time in the cellar ... mainly because cellars, as they once existed in English manor houses, don’t exist much anymore.
A result of this is that most red wines are being made today with slightly lower acids than once was common. Softer white wines also are now more common than ever. Many producers leave actual residual sugar in wines like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc — and even in cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
I see this regularly as I evaluate literally dozens of wines each week. Most are either low in acidity or actually sweet. In the past, such wines would have been drier, with better acid, and would have been better after a year or two more in the bottle.
A validation of this point is that many wines are being released to consumers well before they even taste like wine.
Back in the 1980s, fine cabernets would be held back at the winery until they were four full years old. That length of time was needed to soften the wines and make them more complex.
Today most cabs are released at 2½ years, and we have already seen a few 2015s on store shelves.
If such wines were made specifically to be aged, some buyers would try a bottle and realize it was simply not very satisfying, and would buy no more. So winemakers are making many wines to be instantly likeable.
As the world has evolved in many different ways, California wine has been through many transformations, and it is not really possible to analyze wine today the way it was analyzed 40 years ago.
One place where wine permanence has remained is on the European continent, where a continental climate provides winemakers with more of an opportunity to remain connected to the past.
In California’s Mediterranean climate with it long, warm summer and no rain, it’s easy to make drink-now wines that defy cellar aging.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Georges Duboef Morgon (Beaujolais) “Jean Ernest Descombes” ($18): No one else in the world makes a wine quite like this, a serious “Cru” Beaujolais, made entirely from Gamay grapes. It has a fresh red cherry fruit aroma, and medium weight similar to a rich white wine in texture because there is very little tannin. Best served slightly chilled, it is a superb accompaniment to barbecued foods.
Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.