Dibbern on Wine

How wine ages

Donald Dibbern

Like the climate of a fine wine cellar, the cold and damp winter days of a Pacific Northwest February have provided inspiration for this month's wine column. Herein, we'll try to provide some insights into the natural process of wine aging.

First of all, for many wines, even quality wines, cellaring is more a factor of storage for convenience than truly for aging. If you drink wine with most meals, having a ready stock at home is rather handier than having to run down to the wine shop several times a week. Not to mention that many wines of the type favored by someone apt to be reading a monthly column about wine are released only sporadically and in limited quantities. If you don't purchase your expected annual supply, it probably won't be available again until next year's vintage.

Having a variety of types and styles of wine is useful as well. If you prepare meals at home, it is immensely rewarding to select from a broad range of options to match your wine and food. Even as little as a well-chosen mixed case or two of wine can cover the basics, including a few lighter-bodied and heavier whites, plus several lighter and heavier reds, perhaps some from Old World regions with others from the New World or more internationally-styled, a dry rose or two, a couple of sparklers, and a sweet wine.

But this is not what most wine aficionados rightly consider true cellaring, as opposed to simply storage. Instead, the idea that by keeping certain fine wines under rather tightly controlled conditions, they change over time, for the better.

In retrospect, it took an embarrassingly long time for me to realize two important facts in my wine education. One, not all wines improve with cellaring; and two, length of cellaring does not equal amount of improvement. In other words, that 100-year-old dry Sauvignon Blanc you found in a grandparent's cellar is probably no longer drinkable.

Note the strategic use of the qualifier dry in the previous statement, since I'm not talking about d'Yquem here, folks. This does bring up a serious and important point, however, which is that wine destined for long and productive aging must have substantial structure. Depending upon the particular wine, this can take various forms. For many sweet whites, which age well, it is often a combination of high residual sugar and high acidity. These act as natural preservatives, keeping the fruit flavors alive and fresh longer. The high sugar content also slowly oxidizes over time and contributes to those glorious smells and flavors of caramel, butterscotch, toffee, and such, that are hallmarks of a well-aged fine dessert wine.

I had an interesting experience with one particular wine which would not be considered a traditional candidate for extended cellaring, Caymus Conundrum. Left with a half-case after our wedding, my wife and I drank one each year on our anniversary and were surprised at its improvement and change over time, as it evolved and matured into a beautifully complex, deep golden wine having notes of creme brulee and dried flowers with a hint of Grand Marnier, presumably protected by its off-dry residual sugar.

Even dry whites that are still rather high in acidity, such as Chablis, can age productively over many years. Low-acid, soft and fruity whites, like the stereotypical "buttery-oaky California Chardonnay," would be rather poor candidates for cellaring, and unlikely to improve over time.

So, for white wines, one can produce a decent list for the cellar simply by thinking of those with substantial acidity and/or sweetness. German (and Austrian, and Alsatian) Rieslings are classic, but the same principles would apply to Chenin Blancs of the Loire, particularly the sweeter moelleux styles.

Another special type of white wine is perfect for cellaring: those that are intentionally oxidized during production. This would include both Madeira and certain Sherry. These special wines are produced in a broad range of sweetness, but also are fortified by the addition of alcohol. This too acts as a preservative, further improving the ageability of these wines, thus making the additional point that higher-alcohol (and especially fortified) wines do tend to age better than those with lower alcohol content.

Turning our attention to the cellaring of red wines, the equation shifts slightly. Apart from a few sweet reds, such as Port and Banyuls, most red wines are fermented dry and thus typically lack the preservative effects of sugar. But, unlike the whites, they also have substantial levels of tannin which functions to protect the wine and extend the window of drinkability. These tannins are extracted from the grape skins - and stems, if used - during winemaking. They are responsible for that faintly bitter and drying effect on the tongue so noticeable when drinking a dark young red wine.

The level of tannin in any particular wine depends upon many factors, some of nature and some of man. Although the amount of tannins in a grape depends heavily on the particular variety, there are many ways a wine-maker can affect the amount that end up in the finished wine. In general, however, the darker and thicker-skinned the variety, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, the more tannic the resulting wines.

Therefore, wines made of these types of grapes, when intentionally made for long and beneficial aging, often taste rather harsh and overly structured in their youth. Classic examples would include Premiers Crus Bordeaux and Hermitage of the Northern Rhone, as well as its New World counterpart, Penfolds Grange of Australia (originally labeled Grange Hermitage).

Although specific details regarding recommended durations of aging for wines of particular regions, producers, and vintages are well beyond the scope of this article, there is an excellent, but sadly out-of-print, book by Jancis Robinson MW called Vintage Timecharts (Mitchell Beazley 1989) that exhaustively catalogs approximately ten vintages of the most age-worthy types of wine, projected over two decades of drinking. Her views regarding the evolution of the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, German Riesling, Rioja, and California Cabernet, among others, are insightful and worth seeking out for those looking for expert guidance and advice in these matters.

As has been discussed in passing in prior columns, wines change in complex chemical ways over time. Although slow oxidation is one significant process that occurs, other important reactions that contribute to the overall effect of bottle aging include the polymerization and precipitation of phenolics such as anthocyanins (wine pigments) and tannins, the ongoing conversion of wine acids and alcohol into aromatic esters, and many others. Some of the reactions involved are reductive, while others are oxidative.

The net result of all of this is, at its best, what an oenologist might call an increase in the complexity, tertiary aromas, and organoleptic qualities of the wine. In other words, it smells and tastes better. Although I am no fan of obfuscatory terminology, it is worth knowing the terms primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas of wine. The first refers to smells of the fruit itself (such as apple, or cherry), the second refers to those from fermentation (such as yeasty notes, or oaky barrels, or barnyard brett), and the third develops from extended bottle aging (such as petrol or coffee).

There is one point of conventional wisdom about aging wines with which I significantly disagree, that a wine must be "perfectly balanced" to age well. I would take the meaning of this to be more that a poorly made wine is unlikely to benefit from cellaring but, strictly speaking, wines designed to improve in the bottle are usually somewhat unbalanced in their youth.

I find that the wines that age best are usually at least a bit too closed, tight, and firmly structured, relative to their fruit, to fully enjoy immediately after bottling and release. Even leaving aside the controversial "hedonistic fruit-bombs," truly well-balanced fine wines may certainly hold up nicely and be enjoyable to drink for several years, but I find that the loss of fruit with extended aging leaves them less enjoyable from that point forward than their relatively (albeit intentionally) "unbalanced" competition.

A chart by Kathryn Kennedy winemaker Marty Mathis of the effects of bottle aging on several of the important components of red wine illustrates this beautifully. It can be found on the Kathryn Kennedy Winery website along with much other informative discussion of winemaking and viticulture. With the disclaimer that his graph represents his perceptions based on personal experience, not on scientific data, I would certainly concur that I also find acid, fruit, and tannin to drop relatively rapidly over several years, accompanied by a slower loss of color and gradual rise in complexity and texture for most fine red wines intended for cellaring.

He also points out two peaks in enjoyment, for two different palates. The first he labels the "California wine drinker's peak," for those who seek a robust wine with intense fruit flavors. The latter, instead, is the "Englishman's peak" for those who prefer velvety smooth texture and the greater complexity of tertiary non-fruit aromas and flavors.

We will not here deal with the practical details of establishing an appropriate and effective cellar, as that alone could fill another entire column. Suffice it to say, however, that the primary considerations should be that the wine is kept cool, damp, dark, stable, and horizontal.

Although my tastes have continued to change and evolve over time, just as the wines themselves waiting in the cellar, I still prefer to drink most wines younger rather than older. I do enjoy the complexity conferred on a fine wine from several years of aging, but if the fruit has largely faded then I feel that I have waited too long. Perhaps it is best to err on the side of drinking too early (especially if more bottles of the same remain!), as one of the great disappointments in wine must be to wait and wait for a wine to be "ready," only to open it and find it irrevocably lost to time.

© copyright 2007 by Donald A. Dibbern, Jr., all rights reserved

To contact Donald A. Dibbern Jr., write him at re.wine@verizon.net

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