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THURSDAY THORNS
09/30/2010
Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
Advice on the Aging of Wine

By Charles Olken

All of us who write about wine have, at one time or another, been asked questions about the aging potential of wine—either in generalities or, as often happens around Connoisseurs’ Guide, about specific wines. While most wine drinkers do not put wine away for ages, and often not at all, the folks who hang out around here are far more likely to have wine collections and many of you have serious cellars with temperature controls, attractive displays and computer-driven inventory lists. Today’s article, about to be graded, is probably not directed at the typical CGCW reader, but it makes interesting reading nonetheless. It is written by Laurie Daniel, the very knowledgeable and thoughtful writer for the San Jose Mercury-News. Laurie’s columns often also show up regularly in the Oakland Tribune and Contra-Costa Times, as those latter papers are under the same ownership.

This article, even accepting that it is written for a newspaper audience, grades out at: B. You can and should check it out at: http://www.mercurynews.com/libations/ci_16155996?nclick_check=1

OK, a bit unfair, but, hey, when you have 700 words, it is worth going beyond mere generalities even for a newspaper audience. Laurie is a professional writer, and this piece whisks along smoothly and is easily consumed. Newspaper articles are supposed to be like that. I know. I used to write some of them, and it was always a struggle for me to be open and easily understood when my CGCW style was much more structured, deep and intentionally as complex as the wines I was reviewing. I will admit that I envy folks like Laurie, whose writing style is friendly and comfortable.

That said, this article, which I commend to you, in part because it is like a review course, and in part because it won’t take long to read, does go over the basic ground work for aging and identifies the technical and hedonistic considerations that come into play when judging how long wine can be aged. Laurie is careful, too careful in my humble opinion, to say that she does not wish to tell anyone how long wine should be aged. That is half a copout. Each wine is different and she is not talking about specific wines. How does one then talk in more distinctly advisory terms than the article offers. To me, the answer is to be more specific, and to talk about the specific characteristics one would face in a young wine and how to assess them. Those items are listed, but not assessed.

Enough said. It is a well-written article with less to say than I think it could have said, and that I and CGCW have said in the past. Nevertheless, if I can criticize, even a little bit, I owe it to you to add my own take on aging. Look for it in upcoming blog entries. In the meantime, I do recommend that you have read of Laurie Daniel’s article. It is not wrong, and it is a reminder that we age wine for a reason. On that latter point, her article is spot on.

                                        

One way of continuing the conversation about aging is to look at the way individual recommendations for aging get made. Below are reviews of three wines followed by commentary about why Connoisseurs’ Guide choose the specific aging regimen recommended and further comments about longer term ageworthiness.

96 FREESTONE Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2007 $75.00
These two Chardonnays, from the new Phelps-developed effort out near the Pacific Ocean in an area that seems certain to gain great fame for its deep yet tight and complex wines, are nothing short of stellar accomplishments. They have succeeded in being deep and layered without resorting to high ripeness, and they possess the enlivening acidity that has become part and parcel of the new Chardonnay paradigm in California. This wine comes with a slight haze in its appearance and, like the best efforts of that genre, its fruit is sweet and pulpy, deep and vital all at the same time. Long, fruity, tart, tight and promising to gain greater range over time, this wine is about as good as it gets and joins a very select list of our favorite wines.

Most Chardonnays, including those that would like a few years of age, are virtually ready to drink at an early age. But this one, despite being attractive now, has a hidden message. The wine, because of its depth and its tart and tight stance at the moment, has the makings of a wine that will get better and better for two to four years. After that time, it becomes a wine that will take on a different personality. In this case, its fruit will not fade so much as soften a bit, but its underlying acidity should hold it together for a decade or more. Aging Chardonnay more than a decade is always a gamble, yet given our experiences with well-fruited, high acid wines like older Gary Farrells, Grgich Hills and Marimars, and even the 1974 ZD enjoyed at our Millennium dinner, we would not be surprised to see this wine age for a second decade in reasonably good shape.

96 STORYBOOK MOUNTAIN Estate Reserve Zinfandel Napa Valley 2007 $50.00
This bright and buoyant young wine is rife with a wealth of precise, optimally ripened blackberry fruit, and, while rich and nicely extracted, it never once drifts towards the chocolaty excesses that plague so many big Zins. Supple and fleshy with a bit of baby fat at the moment, it exhibits exemplary balance and structure with well-placed acids, and a light touch of tannin adds welcome firmness to the finish. Its stays fixed on deep, nascent berryish fruit all the way to the end, and it comes with reasons aplenty to expect that even more to like will come if it is allowed to develop for a few years.

This wine illustrates a couple of points that should not be overlooked. The first is that Zinfandel is not necessarily a long-aging wine. Yes, there are wines that age well, and over the years, we have recommended a fair number for longer aging than the majority of their peers. But, when we do, we recognize two factors—even those that outreach their peers are not going to age like Cabernet Sauvignon, and those that do age well have both depth and balance on their sides. The second point that comes into play here, beside organoleptic evaluation, is history. There is no better teacher than history. When we recommend a Storybook Mountain wine for long-aging, we do that armed with the knowledge of how those wines have aged over time. Theoretical models are fine; past experience is more determinative than theory.

87 LEDSON Cépage Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2007 $86.00
Raspberry and red cherry scents are filled out by suggestions of chocolate and a touch of caramelized vanilla bean in the nose of this full-bodied, slightly plump offering. It is a little soft at the edges and invites early to mid-term consumption despite the obvious tannins that arise in the latter palate.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the longest-aging wine we make in California—although devotees of Petite Sirah might argue otherwise. The choice of this Cabernet is designed to illustrate why tannin alone does not lead us to recommend lengthy cellars stays. Here is a wine with plenty of astringency, but it also comes with a softer underbelly, and wines like that often get flabby as they age. Because it is Cabernet Sauvignon and tannic, we have no doubt that its tannins will survive. We are less sure about the wine.

Comments

Laurie Daniel wine aging article
by Richard Kent
Posted on:10/2/2010 6:22:46 AM

Laurie mentions that wine ages faster wine stored warmer. Although this is true, it might lead one to believe that if you store wine warmer you would get the benifits of aging without the waiting. She mentions the chemical reactions in the aging process, but does not mention that some are good and some bad. The two primary ones involve tannins and fruit. They are really competing forces, Aging breaks down tannins (which is good) creating complexity and softness. Aging also breaks down fruit which means you lose the fruit aspect of wine, which is afterall fermented fruit juice. The wine can become what is known as "flabby". It is not a desireable feature. So 55 degrees turns out to be the optimal temperture (why this is so is another subject) to allow the tannins to break down while preserving most of the perishable fruit.

Temperature
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/2/2010 12:19:56 PM

Hello Richard--

Thanks for stopping by. Temperature is a key factor in aging, and while most newspaper readers will not have 55 degree temperature controlled cellars, it seems to me that the article could and should have gone further is discussing the role of that factor in aging.

My very first cellar was in my wife's sewing room. I darkened the windows and created a styrofoam box using inch thick sheets of the stuff in the closet. I cooled that box and its 30 cases with frozen milk bottle cartons that I was rotating from the freezer. It kept the box at about 60 F..

But, even if I had not cooled it, by keeping the sun out of the room and creating a cheap insulated box, I was knocking out the temperature variation issue--a concern that the article in question did not really address.

Ultimately, as my collection grew, I built one cellar and then a second with the second being a cold cellar (about 50-51 degrees) for older red wines in order to slow down their advances past about ten years. It turns out that 50-51 F. is also a fine temp at which to age wine. It is just a slower way of getting to the same evolution.

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