A pair of provocative articles, published recently by a pair of old pros whose work I respect and admire, Alfonso Cevola and Matt Kramer, questioned the value of cellaring wines nowadays. As one who dotes on the taste and complexity of mature wines, I was naturally intrigued by their consideration of the pros and cons – largely cons, it seems – of aging wines.
I’ve long thought Matt’s pieces almost the only thing in The Wine Spectator worth reading, and as long as I’ve known Matt I’ve known him to relish as much as I do the glories that mature wine can offer, so when I hear him saying that it’s hardly worth cellaring wine anymore, I pay attention. Here’s the core of his argument, in his own words:
In recent years it’s become obvious that an ever greater number of wines that once absolutely required extended aging no longer do.
Simply put, most of today’s fine wines—not all, mind you—will reach a point of diminishing returns on aging after as few as five years of additional cellaring after release. Stretch that to a full 10 years of additional aging and I daresay you will have embraced fully 99 percent of all the world’s wines, never mind how renowned or expensive.
He is careful to point out that this doesn’t mean today’s wines are better or worse, just different. He credits the difference to, or blames it on, the now-universal practice of green harvest (and also climate change, I would think), which assures (?!) a concentrated crop of perfectly ripe grapes nearly every harvest. That means that today’s wines are accessible sooner (by and large, I agree) and that they mature sooner, reaching their peak, beyond which they won’t improve, in five or ten years at most (here’s where I disagree). Again, I’ll let Matt speak for himself:
My hard-won experience with aging wines has now answered to my satisfaction the question about the absolute need for long aging; namely, that the great majority of wines today, in the great majority of vintages, don’t really reward that “expensive” extra five or ten years beyond the five or ten years of aging you’ve already bestowed.
I am now convinced that today’s wine lover is well advised to buy fine wines, cellar them in a cool space for five years—ten years, tops—and then drink them in secure confidence that the great majority of their full-dimensional goodness is available to you.
After that, it’s all just fantasy—and the very real likelihood of an increasingly diminishing return on your already delayed gratification.
To this argument, Alfonso adds a stress on the subjective side: We too have changed. Our palates have changed – we want younger, fresher wines now – and we want to drink different wines than the kinds we stored away years ago.
I go into my little walk-in closet and look at all the things I thought would be important to drink in 10-20-30 years and I often find myself walking out and going to another rack of newer wines; fresher, lighter, unencumbered by the dust of time. Oops.
In looking over my little tribe of wines that huddle together in the closet, there are all kinds of strange bedfellows. What are all those sweet wines doing in there? Will it ever get cold enough to drink all the Port that has been gathered? Are those Super Tuscans really prettier when they age, or were they at their best when they were young and willing and tight and bright?
A lot of this is incontrovertible. Our palates and our desires do change over time. Not all wines, even under the best cellar conditions, cooperate by aging and maturing in an interesting manner. And winemaking most certainly has changed, and very dramatically, in ways that must have an effect on the age-ability of wines.
For instance: I recently tasted a very large number of classified growths of Bordeaux, vintage 2010, and found myself vastly underwhelmed. This is a vintage that Parker and others have hailed as great: I believe the Bordelais consider it the third “vintage of the century” so far in this young century. It is already remarkably accessible, compared to the initially tough but long-aging Bordeaux vintages of half a century ago, on which I learned my vinous ABCs.
Parker and others think 2010 will be very long-lived, because it has big tannins, lots of acidity, and pretty high alcohol (at least compared to vintages such 1955 and ’59, ’61 and ’62, ’64 and ’66 – my vinous elementary and high school). Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn whether 2010 Bordeaux ages well or not: I found most of the wines I tasted unbalanced and unintegrated (leading me to think that in fact they won’t age well) and – most damning for Bordeaux – inelegant, bordering on vulgar. These wines certainly show the effects of the green harvest that Matt talked about, and in a thoroughly deleterious fashion: not wines I’d want to keep around at all.
Maybe for many wines ripeness isn’t all? Maybe – for Cabernet sauvignon especially – ripeness can easily be overdone, and a little under-ripeness, with consequently initially tougher tannins and higher acidity and a lot less forward fruit, can be better? Vinous heresy for sure, and be careful who you say it to, lest you be declared pariah and driven out of your tasting club.
I’d certainly agree that there are many occasions on which I actively desire a younger, fresher wine. But that hardly means that there aren’t times when only a mature wine will do what has to be done: charm, seduce, overwhelm, overflow our sensory apparatus and our store of synonyms for great.
I’ve been putting wines away as long as Matt has. Many are from the ‘90s and before, but also with a healthy selection from the first decade of this century (especially from Burgundy and the Piedmont, the Veneto and Campania). Yes, over the years, a few bottles have disappointed, but many have been glorious – and the ones I cellared in the 1990s are doing just fine, thank you. I have equally high hopes for my wines from the first decade of this century: I just hope I’m still around to enjoy them.
A few weeks ago, Diane and I shared a celebratory meal with old friends Betty and Livio at Danny Meyer’s Roman-style restaurant Maialino. To mark the occasion – two of us were turning 75 – I brought a 1986 Masi Amarone Campolongo di Torbe, which we decanted as soon as we were seated and drank about an hour later. I’m not even going to try to describe it, because its complexity was so great and so steadily evolving through the meal. It was, simply, a one-bottle proof of the wisdom of cellaring wine. I only wish I had more of it, and that I might live long enough to experience it at its peak. People do change, and wines do change – and many times, both are for the better.
There are still many kinds of wine that respond very well indeed to aging. Whether the 2010 bottles of Bordeaux will last 20 or 30 years, I doubt, and I’m not going to be around to find out – but I’m willing to bet that a large number of recent vintage Châteauneuf du Papes will, and an equally high percentage of Barolo and Barbaresco (Conterno and Mascarello are shoo-ins), Amarone and Aglianicos and even a few Sangioveses (Biondi-Santi! and Selvapiana’s Chianti Rufina Riserva Bucerchiale). I’m probably not going to cellar any of them myself, but that’s a decision based on the actuarial tables, not the quality of the wine.
Postscript, February 11:
Yesterday I opened a bottle that I had lost track of, 2001 Selciaia, a simple Rosso di Montepulciano from Fassati. I never meant to keep it so long, and I didn’t know what I’d find when I pulled the cork. I more than half expected it to be dead. Well, it wasn’t. In fact it was fine: mature and claret-like, very drinkable and enjoyable. Just goes to show: Some high-end wines can’t cut the mustard, while some simple ones age beautifully. It depends more on the combination of grape, vintage, and maker than any simple formula.