Wine Age, Our Age, Dotage

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.

Matt KramerI’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.

CevolaTo 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.

MasiA 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:

selciaiaYesterday 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.

14 Responses to “Wine Age, Our Age, Dotage”

  1. Alfonso Cevola (@italianwineguy) Says:

    Thanks, Tom, for the kind words…anytime you need someone to help you clear out some of the old ones in your closet, let me know. Grazie

  2. Nevin Murtha Says:

    Sure I like younger accessible wines much of the time. When I do, I go for Barbara, Dolcetto, maybe a Chinnon. Some lighter Burgundies work well too. But if I am having a classified growth Bordeaux, I want to taste the complexity that only comes with age. One of the reasons that I don’t drink them more often (along with price) may be that they don’t make them that way anymore. That is their greedy mistake, not my changing taste. The next time someone decides they don’t want to drink properly aged wines, or all that port, please have them send them to me. I will give them a good home until I drink them.

    • Ed McCarthy Says:

      I echo your sentiments. Matt Kramer has clearly missed the boat on this one. Good Bordeaux, for one thing, needs at least 15 years to properly develop (excluding recent vintages, with 2005 the possible exception).

  3. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Hi Tom:

    Cellaring is something of an art form.

    My habit is to put my mouth (palate) where my money is: I depend on myself and myself alone to determine the age-worthiness of a wine. This can be expensive initially, but rewarding in the end. Wines that are ferociously tannic and/or ferociously acidic without a backbone of fruit and concentration stay on the merchant’s shelves. Those with the fruit to balance out the acid and tannin are candidates for the deep part of my cellar. Wines with delightful forward fruit and freshness that lack supporting tannin and acidity go to the front, for early enjoyment. Alcohol? This molecule might suggest quality, but it does not guarantee it. It is often a liability, and sometimes the only thing that’s left if the wine is aged too long. Sometimes alcohol is a surrogate for ripeness in a young wine that is truly dumb, but in and of itself, it’s quite a gamble. None of this approach is rocket science, but a reasonable strategy to maximize the rapport between wine dollars and wine pleasure.

    I don’t know if Matt Kramer is even generally right about the need for age on wine. Bordeaux gives me that cedar cherry autumn leaf thing I pay for after about 15 years (less in more modest but still good vintages); good, thoughtfully-made California Cab does it in about 11-12 years; Chateauneuf du Pape gives up its dense raspberry, licorice, cigar box thing in 7, then again, in spades. at 11 (and beyond) years; good Burgundy works its magic some time after 5 years. Amarone? Depends on what I want on that occasion. Thirst-quenching fruit when young, mysterious notes of resin, dates, figs and berries after, well, you know… Matt will miss out on the indescribably miraculous thing that happens to the best, sometimes the most expensive (i.e., what we paid all that money for) gems if he’s drinking the great Barolos, Pauillacs, etc., before their 20th birthdays.

    We should taste what we cellar before we cellar, and let our experience, predilections and idiosyncrasies determine when those corks are pulled. When it comes to wine we can all be infanticidal maniacs, necrophiliacs, or creatures somewhere in between.

    Best regards,

    Joe C.

  4. Ole Udsen Says:

    Lovely piece, Tom. I utterly agree on all the points you make. I, too, find that a hint of greenness in youth often translates into very interesting and complex wines over time. The greenness seems to be the basis for interesting transformations. Bordeaux of old was green, and in older books is often described as having 10 – 11% alcohol, no more. Let’s form a secret society of green lovers, probably to be much scorned by the many who seem to think that the luscious sweetness of Coca Cola is to be translated into wine.

    A technical point: Green harvest is normally undertaken just before veraison, the gist apparently being to trick the vine into bringing all of the nutrients and trace compounds it would have distributed to the original number of bunches into a smaller number of bunches, thus achieving greater concentration and probably also earlier and more uniform ripening. If performed after veraison, it is apparently a lot less effective, and if much before, the vine gets used to less bunches.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      That’s a very interesting point, Ole, about the timing of the green harvest. I hadn’t been aware that the timing of the cutting was so crucial — and judging from the number of fully colored bunches I have seen lying in the fields, neither are all the winemakers.

  5. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom- next time you walk into your little walk in closet you can walk out and go to the younger fresher wines- that is ok as long as I AM NOT coming for dinner that night!

  6. Jim Smyth Says:

    Hi Tom,

    Greetings from Hyde Park! In our little corner of the world we have been drinking the wines we have been putting away since the early eighties. On occasion, we have gone back in to the 60s. All of these red wines have been spendid! They have been vibrant, resolved, beautifully integrated and complex. We belong to a wine group that meets quarterly and we generally bring the oldest wines. The younger members bring more recent vintages so we do see a basis for comparison. Based on these events, I would continue to recommend aging one’s cellar as the reward is worth the wait. We are talking about Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone, although we recently had my last bottle of 1974 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva. It was celestial after breathing for nearly two hours.

    All the best to you and Diane!

    Jim & Jan

  7. Ed McCarthy Says:

    I’m with you, Tom. Perfect ripeness of grapes, indeed, in some cases, over-ripeness, has become the goal in much of the modern winemaking. Green harvests to the extreme. I think it’s a mistake. And probably a contributing factor to wines not ageing as well as in the past. And Happy Birthday!

  8. gitapiedinewyork Says:

    Tom: What’s a “Green Harvest?”

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Green harvest is the now almost universal practice of stripping whole bunches of grapes from the vines mid-to-late growing season. The point is to remove not only inferior grapes and bunches but also sound ones, so as to reduce the vine’s production and concentrate its resources in the remaining grapes.

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