What age maturity?

(Originally published October 2007)

Having collected wine now for close to a decade Hanes is now reaping the rewards of his wine collection, pulling bottles to drink with considerable age on them. Factor in being around many other collectors who own older wines and Hanes gets to consume a wide variety of older bottles of fermented grape juice. Which, more and more, raises the question in Hanes’s mind: Why do we even age wine?

The easy and obvious answer is because older wines taste differently than the same wines when younger and we like these flavor developments. While the vast majority of wine produced worldwide does not improve with aging, a small and select few do. And, naturally, Hanes is an elitist and only wants to discuss those few. These “few” are indeed many thousand different bottlings produced each year, however, that’s a drop in the spitbucket when compared to the seas of bulk wine made every year. Over the course of history, these thousands of wines have proven time and again that patience will reward with a more complex and complete drinking experience than could have been provided by the wine in its infancy. These wines may be from Bordeaux, Rioja, Napa Valley, the Rheingau, Piedmont, the Douro or other hundreds of fine wine growing areas. Wherever the vines dig deep, generations have witnessed firsthand the improvements to the finished wine sparked by years sleeping in the bottle.

The sad thing, though, is this doesn’t always bear out. It’s normally the case that aging wine can be a crapshoot and many factors play a hand, vintage weather conditions, general vine health and age, a host of winemaking decisions in the winery, and then how the individual bottle you open and drink has been treated during the years of aging. Hence, the old saw “there’s no great wines, only great bottles of wine.” Two bottles of the same wine 20 years down the road may taste so differently you’d swear they couldn’t be siblings. Nevertheless, we keep plugging away and aging wines in the hope that the liquid’s transformation will translate into an equally transformational experience for our senses. Not always to be. It’s a treacherous “science” to determine the optimal time to open an aging wine — at 5 years, 10 years, 15 years or more? — and errors get made every day by seasoned drinkers, bottles pulled too early or pulled too late.

None of this is incredibly groundbreaking news, wine appreciators take all the foregoing as part of the price of admission. Mistakes were made. But what remains a fairly new phenomenon and one not often explored in the world of wine is how winemaking practices, as well as the global environment, are changing the standard set of expectations for a well-aged wine. Wine is an unique creature in its ability to mutate into something better. While certainly the personality of the appreciator can change over time and effect the act of appreciation, a painting is not inherently better 10 years after it was painted than when the paint was drying on the canvas. The words in a novel don’t change for the better as the years tick by. And we don’t save a meal from a five star restaurant cooked in 1997 expecting it to be even more delicious in 2007.

Another manner of approaching the topic is to differentiate the collector from the drinker. As with anything collectible, the thrill of acquiring may equal or exceed the enjoyment of that collected. So, there’s no guarantee the collector even has an opinion of the relative merits of aging wine. Didn’t care to taste it young, don’t care to taste it old. Just want to collect it. Some people own so much wine they will never taste but the merest fraction of that possessed. Conversely, one could maintain that the drinker primarily dabbles in wine because she enjoys the scents, flavors and textures of wine in their immediacy. Herein comes the twist — for the true drinker of wine, would she consume the wine young if it possessed all the qualities of the aged wine? Is there any inherent value in the act of aging wine itself?

This will only become a more pressing question as the nature of winegrowing and winemaking changes at a rate perhaps never seen before. There are many goals in the aging of wine. With red wines, one goal is to allow the tannins to soften and integrate. However, with increased hang time of the grapes and thus ripeness, tannins are often less evident than in the past. Assuming the grapes achieve good phenological ripeness too, and the tannins are not too hard nor “green,” anything in the tannins which might prevent early enjoyment of the wine can be handled through a variety of emerging winemaking techniques. Having to wait a decade or more for the tannins to cease excessive drying of the mouth and such can fairly simply be made a thing of the past. So, in many instances, that is one inherent value of aging wine that is now on shaky ground.

Development of mature, “tertiary” aromas and flavors remains a primary objective in aging wine. Thus, the question then becomes whether or not contemporary viticultural and vinicultural techniques can achieve these aromas and flavors sooner rather than later, obviating the need for aging. For some winemakers, a lot of the flavors are there in a wine’s youth but are masked by tannins, strong acidity or other “structural” elements of a wine. As a result, reducing the level of tannin or acidity can bring the wine closer to being all it can be in a shorter timeframe. It goes without saying that there are numerous chemical reactions which contribute over the years to a perfectly matured wine. No one as of yet understands fully how these individual chemical processes combine together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. But the efforts to understand are being made. And, the proponents of such research might suggest that this represents true advancement — if you can get the outcome you want now, why be stubborn and wait 15 years? After all, we don’t all have 15 years to wait!

If the chemistry of wine does become clear enough to intentionally induce these chemical changes it is not beyond the realm of possibility that wine drinkers could enjoy the aspects of a well aged Barolo or Bordeaux within a year or so of bottling. A period of experimentation would be required, fiddling further with aspects like grape hang times, or cold soaking the fruit and juice, or types of oak treatments, etc. But once this is more or less done, voila, no need to wait for years.

If time itself does not play an integral role and the chemical processes can be compressed from years to months or even weeks, why not? There really would be no inherent value in aging wine. Instead, you could have different cuvées of the same wine, one all fruity and (what we call today) youthful and another with more faded fruit and increased tertiary elements. Both born on the same day and the same chronological age. Dude, that would be sweet. Everyone’s a winner! Some might aver that there goes even more of the “romance” of wine, of watching a wine evolve over the years as you drink up the bottles from the same case. True dat. But, on the other hand, there would be much practical gain in terms of avoiding the potential for heat damage or other deleterious effects on the bottle over the years of storage. If you drink a bottle three days after you buy it and it’s corked you can usually take it back for a swap or credit. If you drink a bottle 10 years after you buy it, even if you keep the receipt, not too many wine stores are going to give you a store credit or even have the same wine to swap. If they’re still in business.

For now, we’re stuck in the sweeping course of the tides of history. Which blows because Hanes ain’t getting any younger. Plus, as a wine drinker who ages wine Hanes is paying for the false starts or missteps of the experimental process. All that deliciously bold fruit in that young Californian Syrah? Thought it might become more restrained and better integrate with latent notes of grilled meats, olive pits and all the rocky terroir noted in the winery’s sales pitch letters? Uhh, no, because the manipulations that got that fruit all ablaze when young create a bumpy wine lacking in balance even 6-8 years later. Only part of the equation has been gotten down so far, it’s been shown that winemakers can craft explosively powerful, why even decadent, wines when young but once a few years pass the slip starts showing.

Because Hanes does believe we live in a very transitional time for wine appreciation he’s taking two steps to avoid wasting his time and what few pesos he can comb together. First, drink a lot more wine young. It’s what “they” want us to do so why fight city hall? Enjoy it for what it is and see if someone else saves a bottle for a decade later. Second, severely curtail the wines purchased to age down to a very short list of explicitly traditional wine producers with proven track records. No more fifty dollars and a dream for Hanes — if ageability cannot be empirically demonstrated via extant examples, it’s a pass. Hell, even that’s not enough as many formerly traditional producers change their ways to more modern approaches. It’s better to drink a lot of wine from a few producers than a wider range of potential duds. No shoes, no shirt, no dice. Read it, learn it, live it.