When it comes to most of the red wines in this world, there are approximately four different types:
- Wines that are made to be consumed young and are not intended to age particularly well — and they don’t. (Example: Two Buck Chuck.)
- Wines that are made to be consumed young but for various reasons actually end up aging pretty well. (Balanced reds.)
- Wines that are made to be aged and have characteristics built into them that make them relatively less attractive if they’re consumed young. (Top-rate Barolo, first-growth Bordeaux.)
- Wines that are made to be aged for several years or longer, but which do not age well at all. (High-alcohol Zinfandels.)
The French term for wines that are made specifically to be aged is vin de garde. Most wine lovers are willing to pay more to obtain wines like these because, in theory, if a balanced red wine ages for years, consumers are rewarded with complexity that nothing in this world can produce except time.
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I wrote an article about this more than 30 years ago. It was a time when most red wines in the United States were dry and had low alcohol levels and good acidity. As a result, many were made to improve, even if a few of them were aged only two or three more years from the date of release.
Columnist Dan Berger says many of the high-priced Napa Cabs simply aren't worth the money.
Included in this list of wines that aged nicely were some inexpensive domestic wines identified by the word Burgundy that were never intended to be aged very long.
(Looking through my cellar the other day, I found one last bottle of a 1973 Beaulieu Burgundy, a wine made by Dr. Richard Peterson. The price tag on this last bottle showed I paid $2.60 for it.)
Back in the early 1980s, I stashed some early-1970s Napa Cabernets that I had thought would age beautifully. Most did. We still have a few such wines. What contributed most to the aging was that they had lower alcohol levels, higher acidity, proper tannin levels, and moderate pH levels.
In 2010 I saw a technical paper titled “Combining Olfactory and Gustatory Clues in the Judgment of Aging Potential of Red Wine by Wine Professionals.” It sounded authoritative.
Even though these “professionals” were from the University of Dijon in France, a few of the conclusions that appeared in the article seemed to make no sense at all.
One of the questionable lines in the article was: “Wines judged to have aging potential by orthonasal (sniffing) evaluation tended to have woody, caramel, roasted, and prune notes (and) also provide clues for professional judgment of aging potential (and that wines judged to have aging potential) tended to have high astringency and low acidity.”
I’ve evaluated wines for four decades and I’ve never found any connection whatsoever between a wine’s aroma and its ability to age. In fact, using the word “woody” implies that the wine was aged in a barrel, and barrel contact has very little to do with a wine’s ability to age.
But one element of this “scientific” report that made absolutely no sense to me was the assertion that low acidity is associated with the potential for aging. In my experience, the exact opposite is the case. The lower the pH, the stronger a wine is in resisting changes, which most wine lovers associate with the benefits of aging (such as fruit retention).
Reading through this paper, I thought it was evident that the way the analysis was conducted ignored certain crucial elements in the way red wines tend to be structured.
However, the more I analyze the details coming out of professional science laboratories related to the fine wine business, the more I realize how little we once knew, and how little we probably now still know today. Wine is changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up.
In the last several weeks I’ve chatted with some extremely knowledgeable winemakers about several new topics on the production of red and white wines. One topic no one ever speaks about except winemakers and chemists is the subject of potassium in wine.
I won’t get technical here, but several winemakers I spoke with have suggested that wine structure is based on at least a dozen components. Some of these elements are extremely small and may seem to be trivial, but people with degrees in chemistry and microbiology see these issues as crucial.
Recent research into potassium in wine strongly indicates that it contributes positively to wine, and that a particular polymer added to wines offers at least two or three major benefits, both in immediate enjoyment of the wines and in their aging potential.
Another scientific paper that was published just a few weeks ago in Australia spoke of a procedure that is entirely legal and seems to be beneficial in increasing a red wine’s proline, thereby making it a bit more succulent.
If you are a wine lover, should you immediately attempt to find out what the potassium level or proline is in the wine you are buying? I see no point in that. But I am pleased that there are skilled winemakers out there who understand that wine is changing almost daily, and that scientific research usually does not come from mere sensory evaluation.
So, although the potassium level or proline level in a particular wine, or the pH, or the colloid structure may well be important for an enologist’s understanding of what he or she is making, most of us simply have to take it on faith that wine has improved markedly over the last few decades.
I see far more research being conducted around the world that uses laboratory analysis more than it does sensory evaluation. Sure, the story isn’t as romantic as the Judgment of Paris, but it’s a lot more factually fascinating.
Wine of the Week
2020 Messanges Rouge Chinon (Domaine de Pallus) ($21) – Cabernet Francs from France’s Loire Valley rarely are aged in barrels, and this example of Chinon (she-known) is aimed at lovers of French wine who appreciate balance and personality in red wines. With 12.5% alcohol, plum and mineral aromas, and a slightly rustic, saddle leather component in the mid-palate, it’s aimed at fire-roasted salmon — charred on the outside, rare in the middle. It should be better in two to three years. Imported by Rare Wine Co.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes Vintage Experiences, a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com. He is also co-host of "California Wine Country" with Steve Jaxon on KSRO-AM 1350.