Berger on wine: What ever happened to aging fine wines?
The conventional wisdom says top cabernet sauvignons should be aged at least a decade to deliver some of the sublime, mature elements that only bottle-aging can offer.
For a variety of reasons, aging of red wine no longer carries as much interest for today’s consumers. And part of the problem is that many consumers know little of the joys that can occur when properly made wines are aged. Also, few wines are made to age anymore.
The idea of aging red wines once was valid, if not necessary, especially in the 1970s and 1980s (and earlier), when most red wines had lower alcohol levels (12 to 13.5 percent), lower pH levels, and higher acids.
I’ve had dozens of wines from the 1970s (and earlier) that at age 30 or more all had loads of fruit remaining; we still have many cabs from my sons’ birth years (1978, 1981, 1984) that remain stellar.
A similar aging regime has created stars from older barolos, syrahs and even a few white wines (many dry rieslings, Australian semillons, and Loire Valley Pouilly-Fumé, French Burgundies). Even though aging white wines can be tricky, the rewards can be sublime.
For the most part, wines that are made to be aged don’t show as much “greatness” when they’re young. Many are called “backward.” I’ve heard some wine collectors use the same term – vinfanticide – to refer to consuming age-worthy gems. Drinking them young, they say, is a shame.
However, time has changed things. As wine has evolved over the last 25 years, some wine critics have said that quality is directly related to instant appreciation. High scores are usually given to very young wines with little support for long aging.
Wines made to age well often get short shrift. As a result of this and many other factors, I now see fewer consumers aging wines for any length of time.
This is partially a result of critics’ view (starting in the late 1990s) that prompted winemakers to pick grapes later than usual, to make wines with instant likeability.
Today most wines have higher alcohols than in the past (most reds are well over 14 percent), and lower acids, with the aim of making wines taste succulent when young. I call them cola with alcohol.
Thus they appeal more to people who love expansive fruit and don’t care much for the complexity of aged wines.
I often open older wines in restaurants and offer the sommeliers a taste. The wines are almost always terrific, but about half the time, the server says the wine lacks fruit, ignoring the complexity that has replaced it.
Aging wine is a mystical process that can benefit many wines. But those who seek more of the simplistic fruit also don’t like waiting a decade for complexity.
In the mid-1990s, a wine-loving friend in Washington’s wine country noted, “The way we’re making wine these days, the only aging they need is on the way home from the store. Might as well to drink ‘em young.”
Even some longtime wine writers are being won over to the latest efforts to make young wines tasty when released. The excellent Guardian (London) wine writer Fiona Beckett recently weighed in on this in her column:
“I went to a vertical tasting of wines by Felton Road, a New Zealand producer I love and whose products I (very occasionally) buy when I’m feeling particularly extravagant. Although these wines age impressively, they’re just so g---mn delicious when they’re young.”
Curiously, I feel the same way about many New Zealand pinots.
Yet many Americans see older vintages on wine lists or in closeout stores and consider them too mature to try.
A 2014 New Zealand pinot noir I recently saw in a discount store had been imported to sell three years ago for about $28. The discounter had it for $6.99. I tried a bottle. It was a lot better than it had been on release.
I bought three cases of it and gave it to family and friends to prove the point: aging red wines often improves them. But lots of it sat on the store’s floor for weeks after I first discovered it.
Discovery of the Week: 2016 Domaine de Bousejour Chinon ($18): One of the Loire Valley sub-regions that makes red wines is Chinon, and this very stylish all-cabernet franc is slightly like pinot noir in texture with a lot less tannin), a faintly dried-herb note under plum and spice notes, and delivers a load of fruit. Aging is not necessary.