Wednesday, January 23, 2013

with age and proper care

Matt Kramer writes a great blog called Drinking Out Loud, and in his latest piece, he asks Is It Worth It to Age Wines Anymore? A great question, and more complicated than simply complaining that more and more producers are turning to that overtly fruity, soft, big, style of wine that doesn't develop in the bottle and won't live past 2 years. It's an issue that raises more questions than answers really, and here are mine.

Firstly, a distinction has to be made between wines that will develop nuance and character with bottle age, and wines that absolutely demand aging. We need to look at what kind of wines we want to be aging, and Matt makes a good point of this in his article. We need to broaden our minds to truly understand what it is about a wine that makes it ageworthy - after all, longevity isn't exclusive to cabernets and merlots. Decades ago, much of the so-called classical fine wines of Europe - Bordeaux, Burgundy, Vintage Port - were undrinkable in their youth. Harsh, in tannin and acidity, needing years and years to soften and round out. A far cry from the voluptuous texture and smoothness that's now considered the hallmark of fine wines. So why do we age now? Simply put, for interest. Benchmark wines don't need aging so much for drinkability now as for the purposes of developing complexity. When that primary fruit sheds away, we're looking for secondary aromas and flavours to develop, as all the elements of the wine integrate and break down. The fruit, the alcohol, the acidity, the tannin - all those things that make up the wine. Whether that happens in 2 or 5, 10 or 15 years is anybody's guess. But that's what we're looking for when we refer to maturity - that moment in a wine's life when it becomes the truest expression of what it is.

Winos are obsessive fanatics, always chasing that unicorn of drinking a wine at its peak. But how does one determine when a wine 'peaks'? Unless we have cases and cases of a single wine, affording the chance to taste a bottle every 3 months ... how else will we know beyond a doubt that a wine has developed into the best it ever will be? Matt's article implies that the drinking window - or rather, a wine's race to maturity - has shortened due to a variety of factors including (but not limited to) climate change, viticulture practices, and winemaking techniques. This evolution of developments has led to a better understanding of how exactly to achieve health and ripeness in the vineyard, which translates to wines which are more attractive and accessible in their youth. Whether this means that wines won't live as long as their forebears has yet to be seen; the great thing about wine is that everything is learned by drinking.

So, do we go so far as to absolutely say that today's wines are better, or that the wine's of the past remain the true standard bearers of what wine should be? Can we not take a more nuanced view? Maybe it's not so much a question of which era of wine is better, but rather acknowledging the simple fact that, just as people change from generation to generation, so do wines. So with that understanding, the concept (and purpose) of aging wine has also changed. Where perhaps it was once an absolute necessity to age wine because it would otherwise be undrinkable, such bottles are now few and far between. And maybe because wines are now more approachable, it's logically sound to assume that they will mature quicker as well. Ah, so we come to the final question, the question I'm most interested in understanding: are the 'peaks' of today's wines as high as the 'peaks' of their ancestors from decades past?  

This debate, sadly, is inconsequential for the average consumer who don't put much wine away, and have no desire to subject themselves to this slow torture of is it worth putting this bottle away and will it ever live up to expectations. For us poor, poor winos, it's just not feasible or possible to have a cellar full of old treasures. I try ... and I'll keep trying to build the cellar of my dreams. But dusty 30-something year old bottles have always been a novelty. A more realistic and practical approach should be applied to building and maintaining a cellar. Maybe now, with this generation's style of wine ... it's become possible to build decent cellar of interests and oddities and more importantly, have a shot at actually being able to drink our beloved bottles at maturity.


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