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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.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud