If You Think Every Wine Gets Better With Age, Think Again

Posted November 24, 2014

Howard Kaplan

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"95% of all wines released are as good as they'll ever be upon release."

Approximately twenty years ago, this statement from Robert Parker raised a few eyebrows because it represented a radical departure from the time honored notion that most wines, particularly reds, improve with cellaring. Certainly some categories in general (Bordeaux, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, etc.) improve with bottle age, but even in those cases, winemakers are vinifying their wines with an eye toward an earlier drinking window.

For the most part this trend is a reflection of consumers' desire for instant gratification. Nowadays, most people don't have the desire or the patience to wait for a wine to come around. They want satisfaction and they want it now.

How it used to be

In the good old days, wines that needed cellaring were characterized by "tannic shock syndrome," almost like having lots of peanut butter in your mouth, gluing the top and bottom together. Even a wine novice could tell that something was amiss on the palate. A good dose of of aeration would not help the wine much, as the tannic bite was too dominant.

How it is now

Nowadays, wine drinkers in general and Americans specifically are looking for easier drinking wines, ones that won't make you feel like an army is marching on your tongue when you drink it. Today's wine drinkers generally like ripe fruit, stressing freshness and early drinkability. Winemakers and vineyard managers have developed "tricks" to soften tannins and increase the sexy, sweet fruity character. Additionally, earlier drinking wines have a positive monetary effect as sales are generally more robust when consumers seek out wines to drink rather than wines to lay down.

How aging works

What happens to wines with the passage of time? In a word, they become "softer." If a wine starts out as a big, bold, and tannic monster, it is obvious that softening with time would be a good thing for the wine.

That said, even the aforementioned big, blockbuster wines have made great strides to make their wines more drinkable at an earlier age. For example, twenty years ago, a tasting of newly released Barolos was always a challenge. The only good reason to drink them young was to predict where they might be when fully mature. That could mean two decades or more of cellaring. That said, modern Barolo has taken notice and the wines are dramatically more lush and well-rounded in their youth. The same could be said of Bordeaux, Brunello, and just about any other "big" wine category.

Furthermore, we've noticed that younger people (think twenty-something) tend to enjoy wines with a little bit more sweetness than their parents do, adding another reason why there's little point in loading the cellar with ripe, fruity wine without much tannin.

What happens to a wine that drinks beautifully in its youth and is cellared for a number of years?

There are really two answers, depending on the wine. Some wines have a long period of drinkability. These wines remain on a "plateau" of peak drinking that could last a decade or more. Nobody should be in a hurry to pull the cork on those bottles.

On the other hand, some wines that drink beautifully in their youth fade rather quickly and become dull and less interesting with the passage of time. Obviously, these wines are best enjoyed in their youth.

How can you tell which is which? 

Generally the answer lies with the tannin levels; the more tannic the wine is, the more it cries out for cellaring. Also, wines that exhibit ripe fruit are most often enjoyed more upon release.

Maybe now you can more readily understand why Mr. Parker's adage that the drinking window of most wines is only open for a relatively short time. It was true back then and even more true today.

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Howard Kaplan is a co-founder of Executive Wine Seminars, a New York based organization focusing on tasting rare and coveted wines.  He started writing about wine in the early 1980s for Wine Spectator and Cuisine Magazine.  Today, Howard’s tasting notes can be found on both Stephen Tanzer and Robert Parker’s websites.

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