Nov 12, 200912:00 AM
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The vast majority of wine is purchased for immediate consumption, but there are those who have the patience to reap the rewards of proper aging.
The aging of wine is one of those topics that always comes up in wine reviews and when collectors gather. In fact, if you want to spontaneously pull together a group of wine collectors, the question to ask aloud is, “How long should I allow (insert name of wine and vintage here) to age?”
Like birds flocking to scattered bread crumbs in Jackson Square, collectors will gather, and each will have a different answer.
For a moment, let’s step back from the question and consider the whys of wine aging. Wine is a living thing. Over the course of its creation and continuing for all time in its life in the bottle, wine will change. The bouquet, the flavors, the tannins, the color and the fruit are on a mission of metamorphosis, and the only constant in wine is change.
That is to many people what makes the fermented juice of grapes appealing. I am in that number. As it progresses along its journey, wine will never taste the same twice. Its seamless but various stages of maturing, the type of grape varietals involved, its storage and the care taken to keep it calm –– or to roil it up –– all affect wine, making it almost impossible to duplicate a prior experience. Wine is fun and can be maddening or fascinating or both.
Collectors around the world purchase wine with absolutely no intention of drinking them until some point in the future, maybe the distant future. And at no point during the bottle-life of the product they’ve purchased do collectors and aficionados have definitive knowledge of how that product is doing. As you know from experience, once you open a bottle, you must consume it, make salad dressing from it or pour it down the sink. Two of those three outcomes are sad.
For those reasons, the vast majority, more than 90 percent, of wine that is purchased at retail is consumed within 20 hours of being paid for. Wine for the most part is purchased for instant gratification, and its aging potential is of no interest to the end user, namely you. This also most certainly applies to wine purchases in restaurants, where the wine is not consumed within 20 hours of purchase but rather within the hour.
There are wines that are purchased by collectors who want to tuck them away and not worry about them for five, 10, 15, maybe 20 years. How do they know when the wine is ready? How do they know the optimum time to pull the cork and achieve full gratification from the wine?
Short answer: They really don’t know.
It’s all about judgments, experiences, knowledge and luck, not necessarily in that order. There is also the element that some wines have no aging potential, so you should go ahead and yank the cork or unscrew the cap. What the wine is then is as good as it is going to be.
Then again maybe you don’t like wines that have been aged. When you age a wine, you sacrifice fruit. The fruit will fade away with each passing year, and you will be left with some very interesting secondary aromas and flavors but not the fresh fruit exhibited by many young wines.
Short-term cellaring is good and brings out some additional characteristics of every wine. Many wine drinkers are not necessarily appreciative of the flavor-development versus waiting-for-the-pleasure equation.
The bottom line of the matter is, “What do you like in a wine?”
Chances are if you are an American, you like the bright, bold flavors of ripe fruit, coupled with heavier levels of alcohol. Those types of wines, in general, do not age well. They fit into the instant gratification American approach to life just fine.
If you are English, then you probably like the softer tannins and quieter acids with the brown-edge hue that older wines develop, really having not much in common with their younger selves.
The English and the American views of aging wine –– and therefore even the aged wine itself –– are quite different, taking the old saw of two countries separated by a common language to new levels.
Keep in mind that not all wines are good for aging. That $10 bottle of California pinot noir does not have much potential to surprise when stored away for five years. Or, better stated, the surprise will not be pleasant.
However, zinfandel, as an example, does have the ability to come around, changing from a fruit bomb to something more resembling a good cabernet sauvignon.
Those of you who like champagne but are only able to afford the nonvintage brut types without applying for additional lines of credit should consider a bit of aging on those wines. There are additional nuances and flavors to be gained from those undated bottles. A few more years in your collection won’t hurt them at all.
The whole issue with aging, and here’s the downside, is that it is a game of experimentation and risk. If all storage conditions are in good order: no or low light; cool, constant temperatures; quiet with no movements or vibrations, then you have every opportunity to enjoy something quite extraordinary.
What the pros suggest is to purchase a number of bottles of something you really enjoy. People who are adept at aging wine purchase by the case. Then along the way, like every one or two years, open one bottle to see how it is doing. They regard the awards of their patience and the progress of the product.
Wine is not all about chugging. Sometimes it’s a slow slog to great pleasures.