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11.23.2004

Thoughts On Older Vintages of Wine: Are They Worth It?

A post on a fellow wine blog got me thinking the other day about older vintages of wine -- buying them, cellaring them, drinking them. The question under consideration in that blog was a simple one that many wine drinkers ask: is it worth it? Specifically, is it worth it to cellar wines for a long time, or is it worth it to pay big money for older wines at restaurants or at auctions.

The answer, like many of life's subjective quandaries, is that it depends. Here are the things it depends on:

1. Your patience. Are you willing to let things sit around for a while? Obviously not an issue if you're throwing down big bucks at a restaurant.

2. Your cellar. Is your storage (or theirs) reasonably suited for keeping wines well? (55-65 degrees Farenheight with minimal to moderate fluctuation; 60% - 70% humidity)?

3. The wine. And this is the tricky part, because most of the wine you might consider aging (or buying at an aged premium) actually turns out to be nothing special.

That last point needs a little elucidation. Many winemakers will tell you, even label their wines so, that their wines will drink well for a certain period of time. Take your average Napa red wine, for instance, the Niebaum-Coppola Estate Merlot whose label says: "The 2001 Niebaum-Coppola Estate Merlot will age beautifully over the next 10 years."

What does this mean exactly?

It means that UNDER THE RIGHT CELLAR CONDITIONS for the next 10 years, this wine will be DRINKABLE.

The emphasis above is important. Assuming that your cellar is in good shape, this wine won't spoil. But what does it mean to be drinkable for the next 10 years? Well that's a very interesting question.

Here's an interesting tidbit that I didn't manage to include in my recent post about my "chat" with Robert Parker. I asked him about how in the world he can score wines not for what they taste like now (indeed some of his highest rated wines he says are really undrinkable now), but for what he thinks they will taste like in 10 or 20 years.

He said that he has a great track record of predicting which wines will age well, but even the best critics have a mixed record of predicting wines that will IMPROVE over time. That's a pretty important distinction, he said, because there are indeed some wines that do improve over time, reaching a point of quality and character that just cannot be achieved by pure winemaking alone.

This came as somewhat of a revelation to me -- even though it's sort of obvious. Aging = lasting to be drinkable. Improving = transforming into something new. Let's look again at that statement from our friends at Niebaum-Coppola:

"The 2001 Niebaum-Coppola Estate Merlot will age beautifully over the next 10 years."

Yes, but will it improve? It's sort of like looking at Sean Connery in his early James Bond films and making a bet as to whether he'll become sexier in the next 20 years. In hindsight the answer is most certainly yes, but taking a bet in 1963 when he made From Russia With Love was just that, a gamble.

For many of us, deciding to keep some bottles in the cellar, even under good cellar conditions is just as much of a gamble. A majority of wines don't actually improve over time, they just "last." Will they be drinkable in 5 years? Sure. Will they be better than they are now? Not likely.

Adding to the frustration of most ordinary consumers (and the alienation of many first time drinkers of Bordeaux in particular) is that there are a lot of wines that are designed to be aged, regardless of whether they will age well or not. Many French wines are crafted in this way -- heavily tannic to the point of mouth numbing oakness. Waiting for those tannins to mellow in the bottle is not something that most people have the patience to do, and the sad thing is that many who do wait are not rewarded by wines that have significantly improved -- they have only just become a little easier to drink. Accessibility is not really improvement.

I recently had the opportunity to try some older wines, a bunch of 1982 Bordeaux and a few Bordeaux from the 1960s. It was my first real chance to try wines that a lot of people buy at auction, and the type of wines that you see deep in the middle of big wine lists at fancy restaurants with four figure price tags. The experience was incredibly eye opening. Most of the wines were somewhere between what I consider lackluster to reasonably good (between 6 and 8 on a scale of 10). I thought to myself, "People really waited years and paid gobs of money for this stuff?"

However there were a few AMAZING wines, and these were just astonishing. An '82 Cos Estornel (Bordeaux Cabernet blend) and an '88 Chateau Climens (Sauternes), specifically. As opposed to the other wines which were intellectually interesting (i.e. to see how a 22 year old wine tasted), these made me think, "OH, so THIS is what the fuss is all about." These were wines that it seems to me had not just lasted, but had improved. The characteristics of age (mellowing of fruit flavors, softening of tannins, dulling of acidity) combined with the elements that were part of the wines primary flavors and aromas had given the wine something more, a different type of character than I have tasted in any "young" wine (between 0 and 10 years old).

It's clear to me now that many older wines (even those that are supposed to improve) require a certain sort of masochism, the same sort I attribute to drinkers of single malt whisky. The 1961 Chateaux Margaux I tasted the other day was milky brown like bad coffee, and tasted like it too. There are people who like this sort of thing (indeed, just like single malt, there are people who consider it to be the finest expression of alcohol), but it's certainly an acquired taste, and an expensive one at that.

Parker (who's in his fifties) says he doesn't buy these big ageworthy French wines anymore because he won't be able to enjoy them in their prime (30 years from now). Mostly the wines that he adds to his cellar regularly are meant to be drunk within the next 5 years or so.

So what to make of all this? If you're going to age wine, make damn sure its the really best of the best stuff that will improve with age, and make sure you know that it's the sort of improvement that you know will actually taste good to you. The rest of the wine you buy should be stuff that you will realistically consume in a 3 to 5 year timeframe.

What this means to me, and I suspect to many of you, is that your cellar if you have one or are planning/dreaming of one should be smaller than you think. You basically are looking for only about three to five times as much wine as you can drink in a year.

And let's see, if I do a little mental arithmetic....

Looks like I better get drinking.

FURTHER READING:

  • Here's a sympathetic point of view on older wines from The Wine Anorak.

  • Here's a rather good article from Natalie MacLean on her wine cellar and advice for those considering building one.

    Comments (6)

    foxfyre wrote:
    11.23.04 at 8:45 PM

    Having recently tried a Chateau Lafite of a lifetime, I am convinced that saving wines versus buying old wines is the way to go. We had this wine at a nice restaurant, but the markup was huge. We can start a nice collection and sit on it for 20+ years -- why not?

    Ryan wrote:
    11.24.04 at 8:00 AM

    I agree with you Alder. Coming from a generation wanting instant gratification, its a no-brainer for me.

    Being that not everyone has that skills like Parker to tell if a wine will IMPROVE with age, cellaring wines from longer than 10+ is a major gamble. And one I'm not sure I'm willing to invest the time, money and resources in.

    Lenn wrote:
    11.24.04 at 8:37 AM

    Alder...this is a great post that I'm going to link to from my site.

    Another thought popped into my mind when I read this post...would I be able to appreciate "older" wines at this stage in my wine drinking life...given that I drink mostly young wine now? If I'm used to young, fruit forward wines...can I appreciate the nuances of a well aged and cared for Bordeaux? Would a "good one" taste good to me? I'm curious...

    If only I had the opportunity to drink some like you did!

    Alder wrote:
    11.24.04 at 10:40 AM

    Lenn,

    That's a good question, and the answer is that most people WON'T like these wines, even if they are "stellar" examples of their kind, but they may be able to "appreciate" them. Whether appreciation is enough to make you want to drink them regularly I leave up to you.

    Good old Bordeaux in my experience tastes more like graphite, tobacco, and wet slate, with just a hint of cassis and black cherry, if any, rather than a wine that expresses primary flavors of fruit. These aren't subtle distinctions that take years to cultivate an ability to sense, they are just different flavors from the majority of wine that Americans consume. I have faith in your ability, Lenn, or in anyone who drinks a lot of wine, to appreciate the complexity of these wines, but at the end of the day, they may not be wines that you actually like.

    Single malt scotch is actually a good metaphor, so I'll raise it again. Some people like it a lot, and no doubt liked it the first time they tried it. To me it tastes like dirt and burns my throat. I can intellectually understand what people like about it -- I have tried enough to understand the different flavors that come through in the scotch -- but it's not for me.

    As for getting an opportunity to try older wines (which you absolutely MUST do before you go off and buy any at a restaurant or at auction God forbid) there are a couple of ways to do it:

    1. Get some friends together and go in on a bottle or two from your local high-end wine shop or from a reputable Internet dealer. A great bottle of good stuff split among 10 friends is cheap.

    2. Attend a pre-auction tasting. Most metropolitan areas have public wine auctions held by smaller auction firms at least once per year. Check on www.localwineevents.com for anything in your local area.

    3. Go to a tasting dinner. These can get pretty expensive, but wine societies, clubs, and restaurants often hold swanky affairs where they break out the old stuff and serve it to you with a nice dinner.

    4. Make friends with a collector. Join a club or a tasting group and your bound to eventually meet someone with a cellar with a few "old bones" in it. If there's one thing I can say about most wine collectors I've met, they love to share with people they like, and especially if those people can appreciate the wine.

    Cheers,

    Alder

    11.24.04 at 12:04 PM

    Very insightful post. Bravo.

    Another angle here is the rewarding experience of buying a particular wine by the case and following it's evolution. No need to buy one bottle and sit on it for 20+ years and hope that it turns out OK. After doing some research (reading and tasting) jump in and buy a case of something ageworthy. Open a bottle periodically and you will get a great feel for how the wine is evolving. Really getting to know a specific wine is a treat. It's a great way to learn.

    I am still enjoying the 94 caymus I bought. Remember when it was $30 a bottle?

    Alder wrote:
    11.27.04 at 11:02 PM

    Noah, you're absolutely right, this is a great way to experience a wine, even one that isn't necessarily "ageworthy" in the sense that, say, your 94 Caymus is.

    This is a scary proposition for some people, and not one they have the patience for, but I agree that watching a wine age, even over 5 years can be a really educational process.

    That Caymus is a gorgeous wine from a fabulous year, and I wish I had the disposable income in 1994 to buy as much as I wanted from lots of producers. The last of my very few '94s (which weren't Caymus) were enjoyed early in the year.

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