Time in a bottle
Does age matter? Find out for yourself.
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
When I tell someone that I'm a wine writer, one of three questions always
follows: "How did you get to be a wine critic?" "What's your favorite wine?"
"What's the greatest bottle
of wine you've ever had?"
The answer to the first one is easy: I bought my editor a shiny new Volvo. The
second: riesling from Alsace,
specifically Trimbach's Clos Ste-Hune. But the
third question always gives me problems. There's one thing all the candidates
have in common, though: they're all well-aged wines.
for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
To the novice, aging wine can seem like arcane necromancy. And in a small
apartment, with unpredictable temperatures and roommates who are likely to
start uncorking your wine when they run out of MGD, it might be impractical (if
not impossible). But only two things are required to age wine: the right
storage conditions, and time.
Why would you want to age wine in the first place? You'll know why the first
time you taste a mature bottle. Young wine is usually fruity, easy-to-drink
juice that makes a simple, easy-to-understand statement.
Tannin (when present)
is big and bitter; so is any
oak in the wine.
Acidity levels can be
As wine ages, it goes through a series of chemical changes, most of which
science hasn't quite figured out yet. Rough edges are smoothed,
oak blends in,
becomes silky dryness, wild fruitiness fades.
Flavors and aromas also
change; fruit gives way to earthiness, richness, and complex tastes that can be
impossible to pin down. A young wine might scream "CHERRIES!" to all within
earshot, but the same wine 20 years later might whisper of baked apples, wild
game, nutmeg, clove, and soil.
Not all wines are blessed with the ability to age, of course. In fact, most of
the world's wines are specifically designed for early drinking. And then there
are wines that age but do not improve, wines that lose their fruit without
gaining the complex secondary and tertiary qualities that make wine worth
waiting for. Many popular California cabernets, merlots, zinfandels, pinot
noirs, and chardonnays will never be better than they are the day they're
purchased. It's important to remember that this isn't a bad thing;
there's nothing wrong with enjoying wine for its unabashed fruitiness, and
there's nothing wrong with wine that doesn't age.
With the few wines that do age, there are additional hurdles to cross.
A wine that's been aged too long will be "dead," in wine parlance, exhibiting a
total lack of fruit, the taste of
oak and nothing else,
a vinegar-like flavor,
or an oxidized, sherry-like quality. But wines that are built to age for a long
time (like red Bordeaux)
are fruity and fresh when young, then do a vanishing
act for a period of years (or decades). Oenophiles call this sort of wine
"closed," and it's a most distressing phenomenon to the novice, for a closed
wine quite literally tastes dead. Perhaps a faint hint of fruit, a lot of
but little else. With experience, you can
differentiate between "closed" and "dead," but an easy way to tell the
difference is to decant and aerate the wine in question. Dead wines will only
get more dead, but closed wines will open up after a few hours
(sometimes days) and hint at their future potential.
In two weeks,
I'll go into more detail about wines that do age, how long to
keep them, and the proper conditions under which to do so. But for now, it's
important to determine whether you actually like the taste of mature
wine, because not everyone does. Gather a few wine-loving friends and split the
cost of several bottles of old
Bordeaux, Hermitage, Barolo, or
Or try one of these excellent aged wines:
1983 Dr. H. Thanisch Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese ($21.99,
Martignetti's). This vivid green-gold wine from one of Germany's best vineyards
(Sonnenuhr, in Wehlen) is rich and tangy, tasting of overripe apple, minerals,
chalk, lime, and grass. Sweet ripeness is counterbalanced by crystalline
Try it with mildly spicy chicken and pork dishes.
1992 Rooiberg Cellars Pinotage Robertson ($6.49, Wine Press). South
African pinotage can be unpleasant, inky stuff when young, but age transforms
it. This one is like drinking the forest floor, with complex cedar,
brown-sugar, moss, berry, and earth aromas. Bright
acidity keeps this otherwise
serious wine light on its feet. Serve with light red-meat dishes.
1990 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett
($16.95, Federal Wine & Spirits). You could be done drinking this
low-alcohol wine before you're done writing down the name. Intense mineral,
steel, and iron qualities reflective of the
terroir, with mushroom and
apples dancing around the tingly
A highly defined and sharp wine, to be served with mildly spiced fish.
1988 Taurino Rosso del Salento Notarpanaro ($11.25). Widely available,
as is the equally outstanding 1990. A feast of "black" flavors: earth, clove,
truffle, licorice, black cherry, blueberry, blackberry, spice, and roasted
cashew, unbelievable structure and quality at this price. Literally a
beautiful wine, one that could still age but goes well now with
aggressive mushroom dishes.
Kudos to the organizers of this year's Wine Expo, by far the best I've
attended in terms of wines, food, and structure. But shame on the management at
the World Trade Center for sloppy organization (they've done much better in
years past). Many tables went without water for hours on Saturday morning, and
the temperature in the building climbed too high for comfort both days. If
Boston is going to host the country's biggest consumer wine event, there's no
excuse for baking and dehydrating the attendees.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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