Things can only get
better? The inexact science of wine ageing
Part of the enigma of wine -- not to mention frustration and fascination -- is the way
in which it ages. And predicting how a given wine will age is a precarious business. How
can someone so surely predict that a wine without any sort of track record, barely past
its first vintage, will last another 25 years? (As an example, take Robert Parker
commentating on the future of the Fox Creek Reserve Shiraz 1996 from South Australia.)
Surely even the winemaker would struggle to make such a bold prediction (or at least keep
a straight face in the process)? I personally feel any super-ripe, high alcohol and
acid-adjusted wine like this will struggle to maintain much of a drinking cycle at all,
but there again I'm not that enthused with it from the start. But even if I'm not right in
this case, I'll no doubt be proved right on other occasions when more lauded critics will
get it wrong -- such is the difficulty in predicting how wine will age.
The frustration with the unpredictability of the ageing process is offset by the joy
provided by sublime examples of older wines, which at their peak can scale such heights
that younger examples just can't compare. I'm thinking particularly of recent experiences
I have had with a 1959 Leoville Barton and a 1975 Tempier Bandol -- two wines elevated by
age to enthralling heights that eclipse the pleasure given by younger examples.
But what a risky game it is we play! Just how much wine is saved back only for it to
decline in the bottle? How many red faces will the critics endure in making predictions
designed to help their readers, when in fact we know very little about the ageing process
of wine, let alone provide a basis for sure-fire predictions.
I personally think a wine's track record over previous years, given roughly similar
vintage conditions and resulting wine style will generally provide the best predictor.
Beyond that, the structure and balance of a young wine will provide some clues as to its
likely evolution, but these clues will only as good as the taster's ability to distinguish
these components. Such is the winemaking skill in helping wines show well in their youth,
that nowadays it's a tricky game: oak and chemical manipulations can hide flaws which will
only become apparent with a little more time in the bottle.
Some will imply (e.g. Parker) or even say outright (Vic Williams, an NZ wine critic)
that the way in which a wine holds or even improves once opened provides a good clue as to
its ageing potential. I'd certainly treat this ability as a positive indicator. Others
will say it proves nothing beyond how a wine behaves once opened, as we are subjecting the
wine to oxidative ageing and in the bottle, reductive ageing -- its polar opposite -- is
actually occurring. But, given the way in which cork doesn't always provide a perfect
seal, I can see how some of the wine's development may come from a bit of oxidation, or at
least how some wines will survive poorer corks better than others.
Over the years I've experienced many examples of wines drunk over long hours or even
the next day, as a full bottle is too much for even the two of us on a weekday evening. I
also don't often wish to defer wine enjoyment just because I haven't got a willing partner
to share the rest of the bottle! As I write, I'm seeing in the start of the year with a
Leoville-Barton 1990, a bottle I actually opened last year (call it yesterday if you
must)! But how come I'd risk an expensive bottle that may become undrinkable the next day?
Well, at the same time I drunk the 1959 example I gave above, I drunk the 1990, and
thought it and the '86 where the recent vintages of Leoville-Barton most likely to have 30
more years of longevity. Not only that, I've previously had excellent experience of
drinking young Bordeaux over two days. Often its tannic edge is rounded off and in this
case this is exactly what happened. I loved the cigar boxy character the 1990 displayed
when first opened (which has now sadly gone) but in place of its more oaky profile and
tannic finish is a fruitier, richer-tasting example which is rounded off nicely with a
long fruity finish. A slightly different wine from yesterday, not better in all
departments (loss of complexity is often the first negative change when early oxidation
takes over), but certainly its equal overall. But what gives me the best hope of this wine
lasting 30 more years? The way in which it held up over 24 hours or the way in which the
'59 tasted? I have to say it's the track record of Leoville-Barton as an estate, as well
as the fact that it comes from a year which has a firm finish (unlike the softer, shorter
1982, for example), not the way it holds up overnight. I'd like to think that had it
degraded drastically overnight, I'd still have faith in the wine being one for long
ageing, although this faith may have been somewhat shaken.
On a slightly controversial note, I've recently concluded that of all wines, Champagne
survives the best once opened and left overnight, tasting practically as fresh as when it
was opened the first day, overnight! Take a quality champagne, exercise care when pouring
out half a bottle, and with firm re-corking and an overnight stay in the fridge, you'd be
hard pushed to even notice a loss of carbon dioxide let alone flavour. (I wouldn't
recommend this with less than half a bottle left, though.) My belief is the carbon-dioxide
layer acts as a preservative, and this could offer an explanation for the popular 'myth'
that a silver spoon placed in the neck will keep Champagne fresh (albeit the spoon
probably does nothing at all, or perhaps at most, helps trap the carbon dioxide).
Weirder still was the occasion when I recently opened a young Mersault which had an
unpleasant maderized edge to it. Declaring it dead, I didn't throw it away, thinking I
could cook with it. But, the next day, as strange as it seems, the wine tasted much
fresher than before! How can this be, given that maderization is a function of oxygen
exposure, and if anything have been speeded up by the wines being left overnight. But then
take the example of Château Musar, a wine which often exhibits volatile acidity and
oxidative notes when young only to seem younger and fruitier as it ages! Nothing is quite
as it seems when it comes to wine ageing.
One of my favourite wines from Australia is Jim Barry's The Armagh Shiraz, a wine I
know that ages well (in fact some might say frustratingly slowly). Imagine my
disappointment and surprise when I thought I was safe in drinking the 1995 over two days
only for it to be marred by volatile acidity after being left overnight. What does that
tell us about a wines ageing potential? Hopefully nothing other than its susceptibility to
bacterial spoilage. But then perhaps this wine is also vulnerable in the bottle too? Time
So, although some age-worthy wines can survive overnight without becoming a lesser
experience, others can't. And there are plenty of simpler, lesser wines with limited
ageing potential that will be fine left overnight. (As an aside, I often put them in a
fridge to slow down oxidation, but overall there seems to be no advantage of one method of
overnight storage over any another. I used to decant to half bottles if I wanted to split
a wine over two nights, but now I don't bother, as it doesn't seem to be better: the
pouring process itself is a sure fire way to introduce a massive amount of oxygen to a
But what about ageing a wine with a view to seeing it improve? Again, there's no hard
science here, just anecdotal examples. On more that one occasion have I experienced wine
which has not had ideal storage but actually provided a more interesting drink than one
that did. I know Jamie Goode stored his bottles of Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage Thalabert
1990 at home and delicious, complex drinks they where too, but ones which show limited
potential for any further improvement. However, I recently purchased bottles from what
must have been cooler storage only to find they where so youthful in comparison -- they've
had more in common with the '95 vintage bottles I've drunk to date! I have to be honest
and admit Jamie's bottles had become more complex and interesting faster than other
bottles might but given the circumstances this was no bad thing! My first bottle went on
to drink well over two days, which gives me the confidence to expect they too will become
more complex, but then who can be really certain?
I've had wines which some criticise for being too soft and lacking structure (e.g.
Clive Coates on the Caurrades de Lafite '96), only to find that they go on to drink well,
tasting richer and fuller, over two days. This gives me the confidence to ignore critical
notes and expect a wine to go on to provide years of pleasure, perhaps even greater
pleasure in time. However, I've also found others that have been predicted to have a long
future (e.g. Parker on the Pontesac '96), only for them to show poorly the next day. (I
still expect this wine to last 10 years -- but maybe now I've got less confidence in it's
ability to improve dramatically.) However, above all, what really counts is experience.
I've tried to age many New World wines simply to be disappointed. Therefore, even an
overnight improvement may not give me the confidence to think a New World wine will
improve, and I sometimes even think a wine might actually show best while young after
plenty of air rather than actually improve with ageing. (I'm especially thinking here of
young oakier wines in which air seems to bring about better balance, yet the wine as it
ages becomes even more oak dominant as the fruit fades.)
Overall, I'm not able to add much to the ageing debate in the way of science, only a
patchwork of experience, which I still hope others will find helpful. Of all the advice
that wine critics offer (much of which is very helpful), I'd advise you to be most
sceptical about their precise predictions of when to drink a particular wine, and how that
wine will improve with age. Try not to be misled into costly disappointments. If you like
a wine in its youth, don't be one of those people who are led to think that the wine will
inevitably get that much better with ageing. Believe me, the number of wines that truly
become much greater wine experiences with long ageing are few and far between.
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