When thinking of wine in its youthful stages two questions come to mind. First is this wine intended for enjoyment in its early years? Or am I looking for the necessary components, balance and structure indicating its ability to mature with grace and offer a far more complex personality as it evolves over time?
Not all wines are meant to age. And that’s a good thing, because those destined for early pleasure (e.g. bright whites, rosés and lighter reds so special for a summertime delight) offer vivid fruit aromas and flavors to enhance our celebrations and offer diversity to our mealtime pleasures. But rarely do they develop additional nuances if left in the cellar to age. These wines are not necessarily simple in nature but rather provide an “effortless” treat. Much like a fun novel or film as opposed to a complex storyline that necessitates our undivided attention, concentration and focus.
Wines meant to improve with bottle-age (e.g. Bordeaux, Burgundy, cabernet sauvignon and even some chardonnays and most rieslings, etc.) are often sampled young by the trade and wine press before release and shortly thereafter to evaluate their potential to develop in the bottle over the years. When participating in these tastings I look first for balance, or “harmony” as Steven Spurrier, Decanter magazine’s consultant editor and renowned wine critic, describes it.
When in balance, all the individual characteristics of fruit, acidity, tannin (primarily for reds), oak and alcohol represent a finely tuned seamless sonata where none overshadows the other. When a wine meant for the long haul is in balance in its youth it should remain so as it gracefully ages. On the other hand, a wine that is unbalanced when young is unlikely to develop this all important character over time. Most likely, a wine such as this is not a good candidate for long-term growth.
The late and revered international wine legend Peter Sichel once said: “Wine is an intermediate phase between sweet grape juice and vinegar.” While this may sound a bit bizarre at first, it speaks to the fact that wine is a living thing and subject to the confluence of peaks and valleys similar to those we experience in our own lives.
Flowers, foods and other living things (including the grape that does not become wine) age in a rather linear mode. The flower buds, blooms, wilts, dies and then drops to the ground. The fresh bread you just bought will become stale in time and other foods will just spoil if not eaten quickly. The road from origin to demise is a straight line and unlike our life’s rhythmic journey or that of an age-worthy wine in the bottle.
Wine has been considered a part of our lives and integral to many religious traditions for thousands of years. Yet the idea of aging a wine for future development is relatively new and became possible only in the 17th century when coal-fueled furnaces came into being and glass bottles could be produced with greater strength to store the wine. Until then and even today, the vast majority of wines are made for current consumption with relatively few intended for mid or long-term cellaring
In the U.S. about 90 percent of all wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase and the vast majority of the rest is drunk within a year, statistics show. The same is generally also true in Europe with the exception of England where older wines (some say too old) are the fashion.
So when thinking about wine, we should all be more aware of its youthful allure and leave many of the serious aging questions to the few die-hards who seek out the nuanced character of a properly aged wine. Quite often it’s the thrill of that young wine that just hits the spot and leaves us asking for more.
My June 27 column – “Summer is here, and I’m jazzed” – received some interesting comments regarding the season and the chance to explore. Below is one in particular that caught my attention.
Bruce — I agree that experimenting with wines in different weather and social conditions is part of our love of wine. I like to have an “open marriage” in our relationship with favorite varietals.
Whatever works is good for a diverse wine world and I’m just glad Bruce is willing to experiment.