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10.10.2006

Messages In a Bottle: Wine Over Time

winbtl.jpgWe all have times of silent reflection, meditation or prayer in which we voice to ourselves things both profound and petty. One of my recurring prayers (there is nothing else it can be called, really) goes something like this: May there never be a time when wine loses its magic for me.

Sometimes this feels vaguely religious. I have such faith in the mystical conversion of simple grapes into something that transcends its origins, even as it transcends fruit itself. I give thanks for the magic of aromas of honeysuckle, caramel, mint and chocolate created solely by wood and grape juice.

Other times my devotion feels like that of a cheese lover praying he'll never become lactose intolerant. I've watched a wine-drinking friend of mine slowly, and then very rapidly over the last three years, develop an allergy to all fermented alcohol. It's been difficult for him, as he enjoyed wine and beer, and difficult for me to watch. The idea of that happening to me, though? Let's just say I couldn't have any sharp objects around me for a long, long time.

Wine is so much a part of my life now I couldn't imagine living without it. Of course, wine has always been part of the fabric of human lives, a pivotal element of social, religious, and cultural identity. For most of us in the industrialized world, only the barest traces of the intimacy we used to have with wine are visible, kept alive primarily by religion. Unless we are winemakers and winegrowers ourselves, keeping alive that connection between human beings and wine on a daily basis, we have to make an effort to tap into the deeper, more profound aspects of fermented grape juice.

Luckily, such efforts aren't always difficult or expensive. At their easiest they involve a bottle, a corkscrew, a couple of glasses, and friends to hold them while you pour and talk and pour and talk some more.

Last weekend my wife and I drove six hours to a small town in northeastern California where, the next morning, we would go on a day-long mountain bike ride through trees and river canyons with two of our friends. The night before the ride, after fighting the commute for many long hours, we scrounged through our motel rooms to come up with four Styrofoam cups and a Swiss Army knife so together we could share my last bottle of a reserve Napa Zinfandel that, at seven years, was as old as our friendship. It was good.

We can have relationships with wine; and I'm not talking about dependence. We can have meaningful, personal relationships with wine that grow and change. One of the most profound aspects of enjoying wine is the opportunity to see it evolve over time. Unfortunately, this is something that most wine consumers don't often experience. A lack of patience, a lack of space, and the intimidation factor of "laying down" wine prevent most people from ever trying it, although some end up doing it purely by accident.

Most people don't realize, however, that wine is more forgiving than most of their friends (all it needs is a place " even the back of a closet " that doesn't get above eighty degrees for too many days of the year). And most don't realize that you don't have to buy expensive wine in order to enjoy it and learn from it over several years.

Let's talk about deliberately ageing wine.

Heavy-duty wine collectors live by a certain maxim: Almost all wines can last for several years, but only some of them truly improve over time, and only a select few stand the test of decades. This is a simple and profound realization that anyone who is serious about their wine (or their relationships, for that matter) should take to heart.

But for the rest of us who will never really worry whether our '65 Burgundies are ready now or will need a few more years, there are simpler ways to appreciate the magic of a wine that has had the time to turn into something new in the bottle. I encourage any curious wine lover to age some of his wine and learn from the experience; think of it as a brief flirtation at first. Buy a twelve-bottle case of wine and drink one bottle each Christmas, making notes, in whatever fashion seems most natural to you, about how it tastes. See what happens. Marvel at the changes. And if it tastes awful three years in a row, you'll still learn something (and maybe have the ingredients for vinegar).

There's even help for those who can't find a cool space or the self-discipline to only drink a bottle per year: other people who will age the wine for you. Collectors of all sizes regularly sell older wines at bargain prices (and I mean less than $25) on specialized wine auction and e-commerce websites like WineBid.com. Regardless of how they get it, anyone interested in learning about wine should make an effort to experience the effects of time through their tastebuds.

The changes that take place in a wine bottle over time are so complex that we have only a general understanding of the basic chemical processes and how they operate: Molecules of different sorts break apart, while others form longer complex chains (some so complex that they get solid and heavy and drop out in the form of sediment). The tiny bit of air in the bottle dissolves a bit in the wine, the acids change to other things, the sugar to yet something else. All this stuff has scientific names, of course, but what matters to me is the slow, yet inevitable transformation that I am capable of perceiving " regardless of my understanding " through the miracles of flavor, texture, aroma and color.

Wine, once bottled, travels through life with us, and sampling older vintages can be a profound experience of the changes that time works upon everything. Really old wines can offer glimpses of times we will never see, and evoke nostalgia and dreams of a fantastic sort. No matter what its age, when we finally open the bottle and it tastes different than it did some time ago, it's never clear whether it's the wine that is different this time, or whether it is us.

This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.

Comments (14)

brett wrote:
10.10.06 at 12:07 PM

Wonderful article, as always.

My more pragmatic, less romantic revision to your key statement:

"May there never be a time when wine THAT I AM AGING IN MY CELLAR loses its magic for me"

It's been economically (and otherwise) painful for me to sell off many of the wines I once thought I'd want to drink after years of aging.

Gene wrote:
10.10.06 at 12:25 PM

Amen, Alder! Being in the wine country, the vineyards, he wineries is a spiritoal experience for me. The vine whose roots go down into the earth thirty or more feet is a concrete physical connection to mother earth and a spiritual connection to the beauty in the universe. For em, wine is about communion and cameraderie, love and beauty, harmony and peace.

Jess wrote:
10.10.06 at 1:08 PM

No sense in me reiterating what has already been said about the ethereal wonder that is wine. Seeing where it comes from, seeing the fruit hanging there on the vine and then savoring it in the glass is truly a daily ritual in spirituality.

I, like your friend, have recently discovered an allergy, to gluten that is. While being tested I was so frightened that it would be determined that wine was the culprit. If that were the case, I would have already found a very high bridge by now. However, I do enjoy beer and can no longer enjoy that without dearly paying for it the next day. I just hope that the allergy stays with beer and doesn't move on to my true love. Keeping my fingers crossed.

winehiker wrote:
10.12.06 at 11:07 AM

Wine offers us profound promise and profound experiences. Thank you, Alder, for distilling both into profound words.

Andres wrote:
10.14.06 at 9:16 PM

The article describe something pretty similar of what I think about wine. For me, God have gave us a lot of blessings. Among the most important of these blessings stands; family, love and, of course, the wine. We have to celebrate the life and the best way to celebrate it is with the woman you love, your family and a cup of good wine.

Bert wrote:
06.22.07 at 3:11 PM

I have about 15 bottles of quality wines from 1990-1995, both red and white. I opened one Bordeaux and it was not enjoyable.

Question: Should I try sampling them all, or just pour them down the sink? In short, after 15 years is wine worth trying to salvage?

Alder wrote:
06.22.07 at 3:51 PM

Oh you should definitely try them all, one at a time in case you find one that's great, but if they suck, definitely pour them down the drain !

15 years is nothing for aging decent wine. People regularly drink wine that is 50 or 60 years old. Some of the best vintages for Burgundy and Bordeaux are in the 1960s, and people pay thousands of dollars to drink them now.

Karen wrote:
01.18.08 at 8:20 PM

I fell in love with wine in Argentina and I was always surprised with how the Argentines talked about how their wines were ready to drink much younger that old world wines because of the characteristics and that this drives their price down, making high quality Argentine wines available at lower prices. I chatted with the owner of Anuva Vinos, an Argentine wine club and he agreed with me: what are your thoughts?

Alder wrote:
01.18.08 at 8:32 PM

Karen,

I always try to avoid making such sweeping generalizations about the wines of an entire country. I can't say that my conversations with Argentine winemakers suggested that they were consciously making their wines in such a style.

Rajiv A wrote:
04.03.08 at 6:08 AM

As a relatively new wine drinker (turned 21 in september '07), I've had few opportunities to taste aged wine. My first was at a Bordeaux tasting I organized - a 1998 Kirwan. My astonishment at the different flavors and layers of the wine was made even more forcefull because of my initial skepticism. The '96 Taluau which I reviewed for WBW presented a similar plethora of new and delicious flavors, that I was hard pressed to capture, so quickly did the impressions pass by. At the Vayniac tasting, a 1982 Calon-Segur rounded out my trio of fantastic experiences with aged wine. However then I ran into a string of bad luck - no less than 4 wines I tried at the WLTV party were completely oxidized. Later I bought two neglected older bottles ('98 Bdx and '94 Gaillac) from the dusty bins in the local liquor store, only to discover that there was a good reason they had been untouched for so long - both were oxidized.

I guess finding aged wine is a bit trickier than I thought - the probability of getting an improperly-stored bottle seems prohibitively high, unless it comes directly from the Chateau.

Jeff wrote:
09.22.09 at 4:43 PM

Great article as always. As a home wine maker myself, I forget how my wine is so young compared to the wines of the past. I am only 24 years old, so it is just crazy to think about wines that are older than me and have thus, a longer past than myself. But it is also wonderful to see the fruits of my labor age on the shelf as I age.

Felix wrote:
01.17.12 at 4:47 AM

@Jeff - lovely. I am younger than some of the wines I own. To me it always feels like being in the movie "back to the future" when opening a bottle older than me - only without the DeLorean ;)

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