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Thursday Thorns
You Say Older Wines Are Trouble—I Say “Poppycock”

By Charles Olken

There is a reason why people should cellar ageworthy wines, and it’s so simple. They get better with time in the bottle.

What could be easier to understand than that? Yet here is a decidedly misleading comment from a writer who must surely know better. Writing in Bloomberg News, John Mariani comments, as if the problem were an everyday occurrence, “The trouble with old wines, even if kept in temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions in a million dollar cellar, is that they can go bad, oxidize or simply not taste very good after years of aging”.

And as part of his proof, and the only concrete example offered, he quotes the sommelier at New York City’s La Grenouille Restaurant, "We actually encourage them to try a younger, less expensive wine more conducive to the meal rather than go for the 1998 Haut-Brion."

Here is the problem with that proposition. Aside from the fact that La Grenouille has marked the wine up to impossibly pricey levels, the wine itself is just now reaching its peak drinkability. That is the nature of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. The better ones, and Haut Brion is one of those, take a decade just to shed themselves of their baby fat and to acquire the beginnings of the complex patina of age. Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, who knows a thing or two about the subject, insists that Cabernet Sauvignon does not really start to show itself until it has reached its twelfth birthday.

At Connoisseurs’ Guide, we have the proof that he is right. We have, since our first days, held back bottles from good Cabernet vintages. The first of our longitudinal studies involved the Cabernets of the 1970. Back then, there was a legitimate question to be asked if California Cabs could age as long as their French counterparts. There were, of course, some very fine examples of older California wines holding up quite well, but it would be fair to say that those few vintages of Beaulieu and Inglenook and the occasional Krug and Louis Martini were the exceptions to the general experience.

All that changed here in the late 1960 and early 1970s when the treatment of Cabernet Sauvignon became more modernized both at existing wineries and especially for newcomers like Heitz, Chappellet, Robert Mondavi and Ridge in the early part of that period and then the wave of folks like Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Diamond Creek and many more just years later. We now know that those wines have aged for two decades and more.

And we know that their French counterparts have been aging for the same extended periods for decades and decades before we here in California caught on. So, why the worry wart warblings quoted above? Regardless of the fact that aging wine is always a bit of a crapshoot and comes with no guarantees of success for every bottle, those suggestions that there is reason to worry about wines barely more than a decade old are belied by the majority of wines that we and other knowledgeable commentators have recommended as ageworthy. We do not make this stuff up out of whole cloth. We have the probabilities on our sides because we have tasted old wines for years now and we know better.

I have no million-dollar cellar. Mine is constructed out of two by fours and plywood. It certainly contains some wines that are losing their grip on life. Those 1970 California Cabernets, now over forty years old, are getting tired. I sometimes have to open a second bottle to find one worthy of the patience it has been afforded. But what the heck? Those wines cost me $8 and some electricity. And when a great wine or two comes my way, as a 1970 Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve and a 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard did not so long ago, then I know that Bloomberg must be pulling my leg—or needs to taste more older wines.


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by TomHill
Posted on:2/16/2012 10:36:42 AM

" There is a reason why people should cellar ageworthy wines, and it’s so simple. They get better with time in the bottle."

I guess that's exactly the definition of "ageworthy", Charlie. Ahhh...but therein lies the rub....identifying those that are "ageworthy". Other than Monktown attourneys, I not sure us mere mortals can reliably do that.


...."aging wine is always a bit of a crapshoot and comes with no guarantees of success for every bottle" 

is exactly something I would agree with. I've got plenty of wines in my cellar, as well, that I was absolutely certain would go 20 yrs and more....and deader than a doornail. And some that got lost in the shuffle and turn out to be absolutely magnificent. One of these days...maybe I'll figure it out.

   I love trying old wines. It brings back fond memories of how things were back then (by crackey), back when the both of us had more hair (I know...low blow!!) and memories of many of those folks we knew & loved. Makes some of those "over the hill" ( I hate that expression) btls more tolerable.



Depends on your purchasing methods
by Michael Moses
Posted on:2/16/2012 5:00:00 PM

  One critical element in that argument that was omitted was the quantity of wine one might have from a potentially great vintage.  If you only get your hands on a single bottle from a potentially great vintage, I would always err on the side of caution and consume it earlier than later.  But if you can afford to buy by the case or more, then you have greater option available.  Most collectors do not cellar a single bottle.  I was always under the impression the point of having 12 botlles of a single vintage afforded one the ability to consume some of said vintage over time.  If you see that it is losing steam them accelerate the consuption of said vintage. Some critics re-assess their evaluations of say great cabernets from 1997, as I am sure they will do for 2007.  In one instance, a critic of a Cali cab i have in my cellar extended his drinking window and hold time by over a decade because it was doing even better than he could have predicted upon first tasting.

What Tom said
by Dennis Schaefer
Posted on:2/17/2012 8:39:22 AM

...."aging wine is always a bit of a crapshoot and comes with no guarantees of success for every bottle"  That's really the take-away for me, as I was reading this. Also agree with Tom's other points. I just never know what to expect when I pull old bottles out of my cellar. And...I still have just a different color than it used to be.

Old wines
by Christian Miller
Posted on:2/17/2012 12:55:18 PM

the sommelier at New York City’s La Grenouille Restaurant: "We actually encourage them to try a younger, less expensive wine more conducive to the meal rather than go for the 1998 Haut-Brion."

Of course, it's a matter of taste. Some people like the aromas and flavors that come with older wines, some don't. Interestingly I've found it doesn't always correlate with level of involvement or experience. Some casual or newer wine drinkers prefer older reds because they are smoother and less tannic.

The notion of California reds not aging is borderline hilarious to anyone who has had old Eisele or Diamond Creek Cabs or Petite Sirah from the York Creek vineyard.

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