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Wine's Age Old Argument
By Robert Whitley
Nov 29, 2011
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This Christmas season I intend to give the gift that keeps on giving. That would be wine with cellar potential. That would be wine that improves with age, as urban legend would have it. And that would be despite the recent controversy, sparked by one famous wine critic who argued that aged wines aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.

To be sure, many wines made today are as good as they will ever be the moment the cork goes into the bottle. I’m talking about red wines that are, by and large, geared for the wine consumer who craves luscious primary fruit, sweet tannins and soft acidity. The Napa Valley is infamous for its “cocktail Cabs,” which would be Cabernet Sauvignon that is sweet and soft, with virtually no bite (and I would say no backbone) even when served extremely young.

There is certainly a market for that, and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I sometimes enjoy those wines myself. But hang onto them too long and you’ve made an expensive mistake.

There is another segment of the wine market, likely much smaller, which treasures a red wine that seems to find another gear, a glorious evolution into an ethereal state, after it has matured a number of years in a decent wine cellar.

I’ve considered all of the fashionable arguments against aged wines. One prominent wine journalist opined that aged wines are an “acquired” taste. Well of course, for most wines are consumed with 72 hours of purchase. And few everyday wine drinkers, the vast majority of the wine-drinking population, have an honest-to-goodness wine cellar.

Another offered that he would much rather taste a wine with gobs of fresh fruit than a wine that smelled and tasted of leather, which is one of the aromas you might find in an older red wine.

To that I can only respond that too much leather doesn’t work for me, either. There is a place, a much better place, between the fresh and obvious nature of a young, fruity red wine and the dried out, leathery red that someone has aged past its prime.

Ah, there’s the rub. Who determines that place in a wine’s life that we would identify as its prime? That would be you. It would be me. The determination that a wine has reached its peak is a matter of subjective personal preference – to each his own!

My frame of reference is based upon past experiences with older wines and my own palate.

For whatever it’s worth, here’s what I look for.

Color doesn’t tell you much about a younger red wine – unless it has spoiled and turned prematurely brown – but it can provide valuable clues to the integrity of an older wine. As they age, white wines and red wines grow closer in color. Reds get lighter and whites get darker. Once, while visiting a chateau in Bordeaux, I was served a red Bordeaux from the 1920s along with a white Bordeaux from the same vintage. The wines were almost identical in color. An older red in good condition will be clear around the rim and a red brink color toward the core. The color orange typically is not a good sign.

The smell of the wine is very important. If you poke your nose into the glass and all you can smell is leather, old wood and barnyard, you’ve come upon a wine well past its peak, in my humble opinion. A great wine at its peak will exhibit those secondary aromas as subtle complexities, with fruit still the dominant note. For me, a large element of greatness in wine is the ability to carry its fruit a decade or more. Once the fruit is gone and the secondary aromas have taken command, even a great wine is merely a shadow of what it once was.

Taste is what it comes down to in the final analysis. For example, just in the course of doing my job I taste young red Bordeaux and Burgundy and young California Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I know what they taste like at that stage and certainly appreciate whatever level of quality they have achieved at a young age.

But when I dive into my cellar for a special wine to serve with dinner, I almost never select a Bordeaux, Burgundy, Brunello, Barolo or California Cabernet that doesn’t have at least 10 years of age.

That’s how long it takes to begin to soften the tannins and round out the acidity of the truly outstanding red wines from the best vintages. This is important for three reasons.

No. 1, the astringency and bite have been tamed with age. For some wines from some vintages, more than 10 years might be required to achieve this level of smoothness.

No. 2, I would argue that the best wines can actually exhibit more fruit 10 years out than they did upon release. That’s because the wall of tannin you might find in a well-made young red wine – particularly a Bordeaux or Burgundy – masks the fruit to some extent. As the tannin recedes (over time it literally drops out of the wine and forms sediment at the bottom of the bottle) the primary fruit aromas flourish and the wine really begins to shine.

No. 3, as the wine is transformed through the aging process the more subtle, so-called secondary aromas find their voice and the wine is simply more complex and delivers a greater degree of sophistication and elegance than it did when it was all youthful fruit, tannin and acid.

Of course, the proof is, as always, in the bottle. You must take the 10-year taste test yourself to decide whether or not aged wines are a taste worth acquiring.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.