Here’s the key to appreciating older wine: Go to Europe. Cajole a local winemaker into inviting you into his family’s ancient cellar. Accept his invitation to pick a wine from two or three generations back. Brace yourself for a tasting that will be “an epiphany,” “transformative” or “profound.”
When people talk of such opportunity, that’s almost invariably how they describe the outcome.
Stained-glass windows suddenly blaze in the cellar walls and a cathedral organ thunders into action, drowning the drip of seeping water. With older wine, context helps.
But aged wine isn’t for everyone. For some, its fruit is desiccated, its acidity dull.
“A lot of people really don’t like the taste of old wine. Aged wine won’t taste like young wine. If it does, someone has defrauded you,” says Sacramento wine merchant Darrell Corti.
Several years ago, Corti grew so frustrated with customers who returned older wine because it didn’t taste like the younger wine they were accustomed to that he hung a provocative sign alongside a stack of older Australian semillons. “Unless you know mature white wine, PLEASE DO NOT BUY this wine,” it read.
The taste of young wine, the kind of wine most closely identified with California, runs strongly and simply to fruit.
As wine ages, it follows a mysterious and unpredictable evolution. It can mature prematurely, or it can gain drama and complexity for decades. An amorphous quality called “bottle bouquet” is apt to develop, which beyond being fragrant and intriguing is difficult to define. Suggestions of dehydrated fruits, caramelized brown sugar, cigar box, pencil lead, green tea, truffle, coffee and cedar often run through older red wines. The wines may be more complex than ever, though humbled by age.
Drinking a young wine is like eating a raw apple, says Corti, while drinking an older wine is like eating a slice of a “real good apple pie.” In a pie, “the apple tastes different. It has a slightly different character, but it’s still apple,” he says.
Though Corti and some other specialty wine merchants stock some older wines, remnants of long-past vintages aren’t particularly easy to find nowadays.
For wine enthusiasts who want to explore older wines, the easiest and cheapest option is to start setting aside cases of wine they like and that they expect will age gloriously over the next decade or two, then pull and taste one every year or so to gauge its development.
Aside from personal preference, what guidelines should buyers keep in mind in selecting such wines?
Look for “balance,” urge winemakers, collectors, merchants and others who have assembled deep cellars. “Balance,” however, is as difficult to define as “bottle bouquet.” Broadly speaking, a young wine expected to develop nobly over many years should be a model of cleanliness, freshness, vitality and equilibrium. No one characteristic should dominate its presentation – not alcohol, not tannin, not oak.
“A wine that is over-oaked always will be over-oaked. Oak doesn’t change,” cautions John Buechsenstein, longtime wine educator with UC Davis Extension.
Tannin in a wine is tricky to evaluate. A heavy dose no longer is seen as the key to a potentially long life, though some is important. “The key question is really whether there are enough pleasant fruit components to see the wine through to an attractive middle age while the tannins disappear,” writes British wine writer Jancis Robinson, who advises the Queen of England on what wines to sock away. “Look for tannin’s quality – is it drying and aggressive, or is it ripe, refreshing and stimulating?”
Other members of the wine trade urge consumers to consider zingy acidity and restrained pH levels when looking for wines to lay down.
Others say to look to grape varieties, producers and regions with a track record for yielding wines of longevity, such as wines based on cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux or Napa Valley, syrah-rich wines from the Rhone Valley, zinfandel from the Sierra foothills and semillon from Australia.
Still, predicting whether a wine will last a couple of decades is far from a precise science.
“The chemistry of wine aging is quite complex and not well understood at this point,” says winemaker and wine educator Grady Wann, program director for the UCD Extension’s winemaking certificate program.
As further evidence of that, just about everyone who ever has rhapsodized about the drama of an older wine will confess to pouring an older wine that falls short.
Corti, for one, recalls his letdown when he opened a bottle of the legendary Hungarian wine Tokay Essenz. The occasion was the day that astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, and Corti figured a century-old wine would make for a fitting toast.
“I was enchanted with the idea of opening this wine, recalling that (noted British wine writer) Hugh Johnson had said it was like drinking ‘celestial butterscotch,’” Corti recalls.
Instead, “I was very disappointed. It didn’t say anything to me,” Corti says. “It was good and it was interesting, but it didn’t taste like celestial butterscotch.”
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.