Is aging potential a necessary aspect of a great wine? Not a good or pleasurable wine, but a truly great one? Certainly many wine professionals think so. I’ve asked this question of a number of them, including some fellow WRO columnists, and the overwhelming response has been that a wine’s ability to improve in the bottle over time is part of what distinguishes it as great. No matter how one cares to measure what greatness means (with numerical points, for example, or hard-earned dollars) they contend that aging potential is a necessary component of vinous greatness. Well, I think they’re wrong, and in fact are perpetuating a dangerous myth.
In the roughly 8,000 year long history of wine, aging potential has been valued for a mere blip of time--no more than 200 years. The ancient Romans did drink some quite old wines that had been stored in amphorae, but these had been so adulterated with additives--everything from tree sap to salt water to spices and metals, including lead--that they barely qualify as wine at all. In fact, for most of wine’s history, the best wines were always the freshest and youngest ones. Why? Because they hadn’t had a chance to oxidize and turn shrill like vinegar.
Aging potential only became something that people cared about when sturdy glass bottles and secure cork closures became widely available. This happened in the eighteenth century, but it really wasn’t until the nineteenth that a significant number of people began to cellar wines, aging them for years, and sometimes decades, before drinking them. They only did so, however, with a limited set of wines--reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy, German whites from the Rhine, sweet dessert wines from Hungary, and of course everyone’s favorite, Champagne. All other wines continued to be drunk as quickly as possible.
Then as well as now, to have aging potential a wine needs to have a good deal of acidity, plenty of tannin (for reds), a firm structure, and a decent but not too high level of alcohol. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which by all accounts was the golden age for drinking long-aged wine, the most prized ones had just these attributes. That’s because harvests came relatively early, before many of the grapes had matured fully, the fear of rain and early frost sending vintners out into the vineyards sooner than perhaps would have been optimal.
As a result, the best wines back then were extremely hard and tight in their youth. They needed aging to soften and blossom, and so to become first enjoyable and then, in special cases, compelling. These certainly were great wines, so it seems true that aging potential was indeed a necessary part of their greatness.
Wine, however, has changed a great deal since then. In the fifty years following the end of the Second World War, modern science and technology combined to make even the most celebrated wines softer, richer, and much more appealing when young. A wine lover could cellar a young red Bordeaux, white Burgundy, or Napa Valley Cabernet, but he or she also could choose to drink it in the near term. The latter would have been inconceivable (as would putting a California wine in that sentence) a century earlier.
The work of professional oenologists like Emile Peynaud and Jean Ribéreau-Gayon in Bordeaux, Maynard Amerine and Alfred Winkler in California, and Alan Hickinbotham in Australia inspired this change, as did the emergence of widely acknowledged great wines from beyond Europe--that Napa Cabernet, for example, but also wines like Penfolds’ Grange from Australia or Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor from Chile. The world of potentially great wine was becoming global, something that applied to grape growing and winemaking as well. By the 1980s, it was not uncommon to find an American working in a French winery, a Frenchman working in California, and an Australian or Argentinean working alongside both of them. New approaches inspired by new science were becoming more important than tradition. And no tradition faded faster than the one that held that great wine needed to have been cellared before it could be enjoyed.
Still, one could have made a strong argument thirty years ago that the very best wines were those that could age and improve with cellaring. They did not need to be aged, but they could be aged. And possessing that potential made them great.
I don’t think that argument holds water today. Many wines have changed once again over the past three decades. They are being made today with grapes that are riper than ever before, with higher levels of alcohol, and lower levels of acidity. This is true in the Old World as well as the New. These wines, which regularly receive plaudits from critics, are delicious when young, but their ability to improve over time is at best questionable. They simply lack the backbone necessary for long term cellaring. So, for example, the 1997 vintage in California, which heralded this new style of exuberant wine and was applauded at the time as one of the best ever, has produced few wines that survived (let alone improved with) the passing years.
Though they might not always admit it, approachability has replaced longevity as the primary goal of most winemakers the world over. This is true even at even the most hallowed, time-honored estates--the famed Bordeaux châteaux, for example, or those wineries lucky enough to be able to make wines from Burgundy’s grand cru vineyards.
There is yet another reason why aging potential should no longer be considered necessary for a wine to be deemed great. One of the undoubtedly positive developments amidst all these changes in winemaking and grape growing has been the emergence of some fantastically compelling white wines made in places and with grape varieties that have no track record of greatness. These wines tend to be at their best when freshest, which means when at least relatively youthful. Some of the most exciting wines I’ve tasted this past year have been dry Furmints from Hungary, Assyrtikos from Santorini, and Chenin Blancs from South Africa, all of which would not benefit a wit from cellaring. Why aren’t these wines just as strong candidates for greatness as top-notch Cabernets or Pinot Noirs?
The claim that a wine needs to possess aging potential in order even to be a candidate for greatness is a holdover from an era in which there were far fewer exciting wines in the marketplace. It also ignores the reality of what has happened to many widely acknowledged excellent wines over the past thirty or so years. In short, it’s a myth.
And it’s dangerous. If consumers buy wines thinking that those wines should be cellared in order to be enjoyed fully, and the wines end up tasting tired and unexciting, who gets hurt? The consumer, of course. But who’s to blame? The people perpetuating the myth, whether they be critics or retailers. All of us in the business of promoting or selling wine need to be honest with our readers or customers--and with ourselves. And that means facing the reality of what has happened to fine wine the world over, and not holding onto some romantic ideal of dusty bottles lovingly cared for over many years being the only truly great ones.