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The Mysteries of Time and Wine and What Matt Kramer is Missing

yalumba_old.jpgWine writer Matt Kramer has long been the primary reason I subscribe to the Wine Spectator. I really enjoy his use of words as well as his sensibilities when it comes to the world of wine.

The piece he published today on the Wine Spectator web site (which for some reason I cannot fathom, is actually readable by the general public for once) is a great example.

While it rambles a little more than usual for him, his article "What Makes a Wine Ageworthy" captures part of the essence of what makes wine magical, namely that some wines, given time, transform into wholly different wines that transcend their prior selves.

But as much as I enjoyed this article, I think it reduces the question into terms that are far too stark and rigid for the average wine drinker.

Kramer posits that essentially there are two kinds of wine, those that endure, and those that transform. Fair enough. Not all wines will truly transcend their beginnings in a way that is almost wholly unrecognizable from the way they tasted to start.

But implicit in his argument, it seems to me, is that unless you have one of those wines that will predictably transform (thanks to the prerequisite he describes as "mid-palate density") don't bother aging your wines, or at the very least, don't expect much of them if you do.

Now he didn't say this specifically, and I'm happy to give him enough benefit of the doubt to the possibility that he didn't even mean it. But nonetheless I see an opportunity to step in and make a point here, so I'm going to dive into what I'm calling a gap in his thinking.

You should age your wines anyway.

Why? I'll give you three great reasons.

1. Aging wine, even wine that isn't going to turn into something fantastic, teaches you an incredible amount about wine. Including which wines you might want to age and which ones you might not. But more importantly, you learn what happens to wine over time, you get to experience the characteristics of age and how they show up in a wine. These lessons can be learned without aging your own wine, but they are quite expensive, and I might argue, less pleasurable.

2. Following a wine's progression over time is an intimate and special experience, not unlike watching a person you know well mature and change over time. In addition to the general characteristics of age on a wine, there is an additional pleasure to be gained by watching the specific changes to a wine over time. Kramer describes a wine enduring with the suggestion that it "doesn't really change" -- that reds get a little smoother, and whites oxidize -- but I completely disagree. Even those wines that don't "transform" as he describes them, go through dramatic changes over the course of 5, 10, or 15 years that are fascinating to experience, especially when you can do it consistently. Buying a case of wine and drinking a bottle every nine months is like following a favorite character in a TV series over many seasons.

3. Even though wine experts like Kramer seem to suggest that the number of wines that truly get better with age is fairly limited, in my experience they are more wrong than right. I have a problem with this rather exclusive term "ageworthy." Ordinary wines -- even $10 wines that you might buy at a grocery store -- can age beautifully if stored correctly. Not all of them will, of course, but based on my own experience aging all sorts of California wines for 10 years (mostly in the $20-30 price range) and the experiences I've had tasting older vintages (1970s, 1980s) of wines that were the high-production wines of their day, there is much pleasure lurking in these older bottles, and in many cases, more than when they were first released.

Now before I get clobbered by people who think it's irresponsible for me to suggest you take your 2010 California Sauvignon Blanc and throw it in a 55 degree cellar for 10 years, I should suggest a couple of basic guidelines.

You'll generally have better luck with red wines than white, but that shouldn't stop you from trying to age whites, though if you aim for whites with higher acidity, you'll likely fare better.

Having a proper cellar, either a wine fridge at the right temperature, or a space that doesn't get hotter than 65 degrees or so is pretty important. Heat will be your undoing in even the most rudimentary of wine aging experiments.

And finally, be patient, have fun, and don't believe the experts when they tell you your wine isn't worth aging. You be the judge of that. But in order to be a competent judge, you need to try it first, and that means at least taking a few bottles and sampling them at intervals.

Just think of the whole exercise as spending time with an old friend. That friend may not "transform" into a supermodel, but I say there can be as much pleasure in a careworn face whose divots and dimples you know well as there is in a metamorphosis.

Here are some additional thoughts of mine on the pleasures of aging wine.

Comments (19)

John wrote:
08.03.10 at 11:18 PM

Buying one bottle and aging it is not much more sensible than buying one bottle and drinking it forthwith. I think what's interesting about aging wine is the journey, and it takes several bottles to do that. A consequence of that mentality is you have to drink a fair amount of wine. I can live with that.

Brian wrote:
08.04.10 at 9:34 AM

Great post. I love this "Buying a case of wine and drinking a bottle every nine months is like following a favorite character in a TV series over many seasons."

I have had the opportunity to taste some truly phenomenal (what I would call old) whites, Chardonnay specifically. I have recently had some 1986/88 Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierres and it's amazing what time and proper cellaring can do to a white. Admittedly, it was aged in a large format bottle, in the winery's cellar, so no more optimal conditions exist.

Again, great insight into another fun aspect of wine.


Jon Bjork wrote:
08.04.10 at 12:46 PM

One fun assignment we had in a UC Davis VEN class I took was to select two vintages of the same wine that are at least 5 years different, pour each into a glass, cover the glass, then see what happens over the course of a few weeks. You don't get to actually taste the wine, but you do get to take some sniffs and watch the wine change. It was a lesson in a sort of time-lapse approximation of what changes the wine could possibly go through if allowed to age long enough. Of course there are many confounding variables, such as introduction of microbes from the air that wouldn't happen in a corked bottle, but the whole process was very interesting.

Matt Allen wrote:
08.04.10 at 4:57 PM

One of the first aging experiments I did was with a case of $7.99 per bottle Austrailian Shiraz. It really improved over the two years that I aged it.

Bill Dyer wrote:
08.05.10 at 8:13 AM

Opened today our 1997 Dyer Diamond Mountain Cabernet, and it is "in the zone" and likely to keep on with its "transformation" for quite some time. My take is that some sites have particular ageability, and if one has such a site the obligation to make an ageable wine comes with the territory. In the context of Napa Cabs, it seems that sites that ripen at relatively low brix, often achieving that the last few brix very slowly in the shorter days of October, absent of heat spikes, have a structure that will go the distance. Sites that sugar up fast in the hotter days of September may need to be harvested at high brix to get flavor development, but often don't have the structure to allow a transformation over time.

Steve wrote:
08.05.10 at 8:39 AM

Wine is very much like people; no two bottles are alike and they change with time. It's a journey with a good friend. I've always found that 3 to 4 bottles of a wine over several months to be a better experience than a single bottle for the same money. In much the same way, a single bottle over the period of a nice relaxed dinner evolves and says more about a wine than a single sip from a tasting. One of my great experiences was a case of Francois Bauer grand cru "Brand" Riesling for a mere $133. Each bottle was different, changing in flavor, aroma, and color over the years. Like you said, white wine can work too. And if I had let the pro's number rating discourage me, I'd never have had such a great wine experience.

Mart S. wrote:
08.06.10 at 7:41 AM

I really want to hear more regarding your research Matt. Cheers!

Mart S. wrote:
08.06.10 at 7:45 AM

I agree with John. Very good point! Cheers!

jason Carey DWS wrote:
08.07.10 at 11:33 AM

One Cavet ,, never try to age a wine with one of those Nomacorcs.
Many french producers (even the likes of C &B Breton) use them on their lower end wines and so wines that might have improved for say 4 years are horrible. Why they wont move to screwcap is beyond me. I just drank a Brocard Petit Chablis 06 in screwcap and it is Goregeous.. Nomacorc should be banned.

08.08.10 at 5:08 PM

"Ordinary wines -- even $10 wines that you might buy at a grocery store -- can age beautifully if stored correctly. Not all of them will, of course, but based on my own experience aging all sorts of California wines for 10 years...there is much pleasure lurking in these older bottles, and in many cases, more than when they were first released."

This is an excellent point, often unrecognized. An additional irony of today's wine style is that sometimes the "ordinary" cuvee of California red is more age-worthy than the reserve (less overripe, lower pH, less oxidation). I would also agree that many of the $10-15 "mass market" reds taste better 2-4 years down the road than at the time of release. But to pile caveats on caveats, that is to my taste. Consumers who thrive on gobs of young fruit flavors might not agree.

Christopher Robinson wrote:
08.08.10 at 11:10 PM

The other side of the equation is just how good are many of those old wines with all that invested ageing? Hand on heart - most of them are faded glories of themselves and are rarely as good as they were at some distant point in the past. I have had old wines back to the 18th century and have rarely been "bowled over" by anything other than the privilege and rareness of the moment. The only aged red wines that ever seem to age well are those very hot Bordeaux years (1928, 1947, 1961, 1982, etc) and quite often Burgundies, where those "sur bois" characters seem to be part of the ageing process - and luckily the expected taste profile of burgundies.

Burgnut wrote:
08.10.10 at 1:26 PM

I love to age wines for 5-15 years, especially French wines--they always seem to get better with age--as a wine retailer it is something I'm always advocating to my customers: that even short-term cellaring is rewarding--but what bothers me is generally the wines being made today are not as age-able as they used to be. People just don't cellar wines like they used to and the market has demanded softer, earlier-drinking wines and around the world wine styles have changed. Burgundies I buy now have a much more forward ripe fruit and much less acidity than the same wines 10-20 years ago. Even my favorites from California like Diamond Creek cabs or Ridge Geyserville are distressingly soft and drinkable right out of the bottle, making me question their age-ability. I hope I'm wrong but I fear for the future...

Shawn Denkler wrote:
08.11.10 at 3:40 PM

The article mentions aging California wines from the 1970 & 80s and how nicely they can age at times. Unfortunately the higher alcohol levels in modern wine has changed the chemistry of the wine and greatly limited its ability to age. Modern California wines often fall apart after five years and gained very little by aging.

I strongly agree with the basic theme of the article and personally have recommended to many people that they buy multiple bottles to learn about ageing. But now I tell them to stick with European wines to age.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
08.11.10 at 3:44 PM


I also age California wines from the 1990s and 2000s. Some of them do fall apart. And that's a very good thing for people to learn, because without actually tasting it, all they hear is "experts" proclaiming that "California Wines Don't Age." But many wines from the past two decades not only change and age gracefully, they actually improve.

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