When it comes to tasting wine in a critical context (critical as in “for the purpose of reviewing potential and quality” and not critical as in “life-threateningly-important” – though way, way, way too many people treat it that way), I’m often reminded of the phrase made (in)famous decades ago in wine TV commercials by an aging (and rapidly expanding) Orson Welles.
No, I don’t mean “Mmmmyyyyaaaaaargh…The French!…”
I mean “wine before its time.”
The deeper I go into this Going Pro rabbit hole, the more often I find myself tasting a fine wine (several) years before “its time” – what I would consider its optimal drinking age. It’s something that came to mind while I was reading (and subsequently commenting on) a recent blog post by Wine Enthusiast’s Steve Heimoff, when he mused that it’s a treat for wine reviewers when they actually get an appreciable amount of time to enjoy a wine at leisure (a point with which I agree, and one I can appreciate given that I’ve found myself in similar circumstances recently – though as a general rule I eschew tasting large volumes of wine quickly and, as mentioned before on these virtual pages, I’m not interested in going that route for 1WineDude.com).
So, what is a wine’s optimal drinking age, then?…
Before we get into that, I need to explain two very important things.
1) In most cases, tasting a wine before “its time” means only a few short years before what I think is its time – emphasis on the “what I think” part, because as I’ll explain in a bit I firmly believe that point is entirely subjective. Now, the vast majority (think 99%) of wines sold in terms of volume won’t really benefit from any additional bottle aging, and even the better part of the remaining 1% will probably need less than five years in the bottle. I just happen to be (extremely) lucky enough to taste a good amount of wine that has the potential to age for decades and still offer a great drinking experience.
2) “Optimal” drinking age is totally subjective. In England, where they like their aged red blends to taste like mouthfuls of forest floor, they’d likely scoff at a similar wine being imbibed decades earlier by us in the States, where the predominant tastes seem to prefer red wines that have gobs of so much fruit that drinking them is like being hit in the face by a blueberry pie.
As in most other things in my life, I prefer the centrist view: I like aged wines in which the primary fruit aromas/flavors are just starting to fade but are still prominent, and the secondary aromas/flavors (usually earthy, spicy and meaty stuff in reds, and spice and honey/nutty stuff in whites) are just starting to jump up and down underneath those primary ones and demanding some attention. That, to me, is the best drinking window and trying to judge when that optimal drinking window will take place – sometime in the future – is one of the most difficult things that any serious wine critic has to do. It takes a lot of tasting experience, a lot of background knowledge and a whole lot of rumination and hard work (and a fair share of guessing).
But make no mistake about it: no matter how informed the prediction may be, it’s never universal – it’s my optimal drinking window, and I make no promises that it might be your optional drinking window; and I certainly make no claims that there is one perfect optimal drinking window.
Your homework? Go out and find YOUR OWN optimal drinking window. Buy three bottles of a favorite fine wine and stock two of them away, and pop them open at future intervals and see how they develop. Or better yet, host a party and have people bring over their older bottles and have a fun taste test. The point is that to find out what you really like, you’re going to have to put in some work.
But what fun and rewarding work it is! Just don’t overdo it, or you may end up looking like an expanding Orson Welles…
21 thoughts on “Going Pro: I Will Drink All Wine Before Its Time”
Patience is a virtue that seems to have vanished in our world of instant gratification. Unfortunately, this has also bled into the wine world. I have often found that wines that weren't built to age do just fine 5, even 10 years beyond their short drinking window.
CWP – very true, but I'm skeptical of the wines commonly railed against as 'built for now' not being able to age. I've had some examples of those (particularly the ones with long-chain tannins) that have aged very well.
I'm with both of you, and we have been doing a not-so-scientific experiment at home for several years now, aging inexpensive but well built wines. I am happy to report that wine priced under $12 from places like Portugal and Chile not only holds up well, but ages gracefully when compared against notes and new releases of the same.
Thanks, Todd – You just gave me reason to quadruple my cellar space…
love the Orson clip! Myyyyyaaaargh!
Louise – as one of my friends put it when describing this clip (and I can think of no better summary), "I wished it was longer!" :)
A hilarious yet cautionary clip, praying none of us end up like that: fat and slurring blather. It's been years since I have seen that clip, and yet it still shows well. I imagine that little video has a long life ahead of it. A most marvelous vintage. Cheers.
This is one of the of the many factors that make wine reviewing so much different from writing other kinds of reviews. People get frustrated because they want something more simple like a movie review. Imagine saying, "Well, Citizen Kane looked promising in 1941 but you couldn't really enjoy it until 1952. It was great up until 1965, when the quality began to fade away. Now it's mostly a collector's item, only owned by the very wealthy. Some estimates are that all the copies will be gone by the end of the decade, and no one will ever see the film again. As for the recent remake of True Grit, try watching it in 2015, but of course there's always that chance that the DVD will be 'disced' and you won't get to enjoy it."
I'm trying the whole aging thing with a couple of bottles of 2007 Ridge Geyserville Zin. I first had it about a year ago and tucked away a couple of bottles to see how it will evolve. I will probably get into one later this year and then,if I can keep my mits away from the last bottle, I'll pop it open in a couple more years- circa 2013. Can't wait to see what happens.
Jerry – I need to more of exactly what you're planning there. Sounds like a trip to one of my fave wine shops is in order…
Oh yes my friend, take a trip to your local shop and get you some! It's one of the more interesting Zins I've tasted. And being blessed to live smack dab in the middle (Sacramento) between the Sierra Foothills and Napa/Sonoma, I've had more than my share. Oddly enough, the only other Zin I can compare it to is a Lodi Zin from a Van Ruiten winery. Both had knock your socks of structure and maintain excellent fruit character. Anywho, if you pick up a bottle of Ridge it will probably run you around 30 stones. But why buy just one? Side note, great job on the going pro series of posts. It's really interesting to hear your experience and some of the things you've learned.
Hey Jerry – thanks (on all counts!). Cheers!
I wish we all had the time to travel to great wineries and do verticals. What a great experience. One of my new year's resolutions is to taste more older wines at the winery with the winemaker.
Steve, if you are able to set that up, I'll help you with the endeavor at no charge…
I'm with CWP! :)
But you bring up a great point – why not ask for some older wines now and then on these press jaunts…
This is one of the issues most vexing to me: wine and age. Like most things in the wine world, despite my relatively new exposure to it, I am very often surprised to find conventional wisdom very wrong, or, at the very least, misleading. Case in point: recently, I came across some St. Laurent (Pretterebner) from 1997. According to everything I have read, this is a varietal that won't stand up to age. Nevertheless, it is drinking beautifully, with plenty of fruit and a gorgeous minerality and beautiful floral notes. Moreover, I have also had the good fortune to come across 10-15 year old Burgundies and Mosel Rieslings from "mediocre" vintages that have been absolutely stellar. The experience has left me pining for more such "old" wine and the young stuff fails to appeal in the same way. For a wine geek, it seems to me an aged bottle is a truly humbling experience and one to savor. It is sad it is relatively rare these days. It is also sad that silly things like vintage charts keep people from experiencing bottle age to begin with. Cheers!
Thanks traillspencelow – GREAT comment!
I hear you…We were fortunate to be at the recent 40th birthday party of a friend who is in the biz, and was given a bottle of Austrian Gruner-Veltliner from his birth year by the producer. This was just their basic groovy, and of course no one was "sure" of what to expect. It was as radiant and crisp as it probably was the day it was bottled, but also had an ethereal depth that seemed to say, "thanks for being patient with me". Quite a nice experience, and something we could do more often, if we were not so often committing infanticide in the cellar…
Ah, the aging virtues of good acidity! :)
Great posts about aging wine and putting some bottles of same away and tasting later . Problem is who the hell can remember what something tasted like 4 or 5 or 10 years ago unless you have notes and even then it's like trying to remember physical pain you remember it but you don't feel it!!
Thanks, mac – you know, it's the ones that make the big impressions that you remember most (at least that's how it works for me). I do NOT have "photographic palate" but some do stand out as recognizable, even years later.
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