Wine Blog

The Adventure of Aged Wine

{Our staff & clientele recently celebrated Webster’s 18th anniversary with a special feature by the glass from our maiden vintage, a still-lively 1994 Chianti Classico….. Last night, I was impressed with how impeccably a 2001 Grand Cru Pinot Gris from Alsace paired with the sweet spices of kao soy (thai curry, crushed peanut, lime, sour mustard)….. A few months ago, I opened our last bottle of 1983 Haut-Segottes St.-Emilion – not the most highly regarded vintage – and was surprised by its elegance, lightness of body, and real persistence…}

These recent experiences – joined with a new printing of Webster’s reserve list – reminded me of the value of age, and how, with sufficient time, a wine can completely transform, and become ‘new again’.

The serious adventure to aged wines more than merits the efforts involved in their discovery.

(Below are just a few of the many indicators of a wine’s ageworthiness, along with some personal impressions.)

factors to ageworthiness

ACID and TANNIN are the critical elements to any wine’s positive change over time; the former is more relevant for whites, the latter for reds.  Oxygen exposure can bring many benefits to a finished wine (it helps release molecules which convey aroma and flavor by breaking down polyphenols and enzymes), and yet it is also one of its primary enemies:  too much exposure to oxygen can result in a stale total impression.  Acid (especially ascorbic acid) and tannin (a polyphenolic compound shared by many plants, picked up in wine through juice contact with grape skins) are common ANTI-oxidants, and therefore aids to wine as they develop in bottle.

Certain grape varieties have higher degrees of acidity (Chenin Blanc, Riesling, etc.), just as others have thicker skins and higher potential tannins (Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah); cooler climatic conditions help preserve acidity and keep alcohol at a drinkable level.  Generally speaking, when one looks for wines which will be ageworthy, one should look for high-acid white grapes from medium-warmth vintages, or medium-tannin red varietals from cooler, ‘off’ vintages.  I would wager, for example, that in the hands of the right winegrowers, the 1983 vintage in Bordeaux is tasting far more complete than the much-touted, ‘riper’ 1982s.  Why?  Because of acid.  Of the two crucial elements, in my experience, acid always trumps tannin as indicator of greatness over time.

sulfur and oxygen

Sulfur is another antioxidant, and a common tool in winemaking.  Many producers who employ sulfur at harvest, when racking juice from barrel to barrel, and before the final bottling argue that if they did not, either a ‘spoiled’ wine would result, or one not fit for aging.  ‘Non-sulfured wines need to be enjoyed immediately, or they die!’, I’ve heard argued many times; I have yet to taste the truth of the statement.  I’ve actually been exposed to several decade-old (and more) non-sulfured bottlings which have been far more complete than their sulfured counterparts.  Again, acidity comes into play here.  When the grapes are treated well, and harvest is late enough to involve tartaric acidity in the finished juice no matter the climate, then oxidation can have a powerful positive effect, as the oxygen releases a host of secondary qualities from broken-down tartaric acidity.

how older wines look

Over the course of time, tannin in wine forms longer molecular/enzymatic chains, which trap aromatic compounds.  When they grow to a certain length and weight, they break apart again – releasing potential aroma – and ‘fall out’, forming sediment.  Again, generally speaking, I find ‘fine sediment’ in an older wine to indicate when it’s at its peak; ‘chunky’, or heavy sediment tends to mean it’s starting to go over the hill.

White wines tend to turn golden with time; I find they can often go as far as beige or mahogany and still be delightful, as long as they remain prismatic and/or scintillating. (And they are not immune from sediment; many older Rieslings, for example, can contain tartaric acid crystals, and other white wines with longer skin contact can even pick up polyphenols, including tannin.)

what does ‘secondary’ mean?

‘Secondary’ and even ‘Tertiary’ are used to categorize the aromas & flavors of mature wine.  What do these terms have to do with what’s in the glass?

Technically speaking, ‘Primary’ aromas refer directly to the grape itself; the aromatics of the fruit before fermentation.  All varietals show this primary quality, but some, like Muscat and Gewurztraminer, are more pronounced than others.  ‘Secondary’ tends to refer to the change these aromas undergo after fermentation, and the effect of the storage vessel (the ‘bouquet’) while ‘Tertiary’ refers to the specific changes over time in bottle.

I use these terms to describe a wine’s increasing ability to express essences (in the sense of ‘essential oils’).  If a Riesling, for example, begins its life redolent of fresh lilac blossom, green apple and mint, and five years later reminds one of macadamia nut oil, sesame, rosemary, soy, and chili flake – as often happens – I would say that it underwent a ‘secondary’ change, as one ‘set’ of flavors & aromas became another, more ‘essential’.  If after another 10 years it begins to show truffle, freshly turned humus, roasted coffee bean, even mocha, it would have turned ‘tertiary’, and perhaps be nearing the end of its life.

screw-cap vs. cork

The jury’s still officially out on this one, but I have yet to see a strong difference between mature wines in screw-cap vs. cork… If anything, a slightly slower development in screw-cap.

do wines improve over time?

Perhaps too generously, I tend not to consider a wine ‘improving’ over time, but rather, strictly ‘changing’.  Positive or negative, this change is nearly always interesting; sometimes the pleasure is more cerebral, sometimes more physical, sometimes -ideally – a mix of both.

availability

We currently offer a host of affordable older vintages at their prime; most are recent acquisitions.  A short list includes:

1999 Savennieres (France), 1990 Roter Veltliner (Austria), 1995 Riesling Auslese (Germany), 1981 Rioja (Spain), 1997 Sauternes (France), 1995 Champagne (France), 1994 Zinfandel (California), 2002 Collio Bianco (Italy), 1997 Barolo (Italy), 1998  Aghiorghitiko blend (Greece)… And signally, a 1985 Salon Champagne which is showing better than ever; I tasted it again with colleagues on 5 December 2012, and its lively evocation of oyster shell, parmesan, and truffle reminded me of Terry Theise’s observation that “aged Champagne reverts back to its essential wine”; it conveys something very fundamental and grounding.

Enjoy these wines now; each provides a very unique, sensible experience of time.

- jeremy quinn