Putting wine away for a child’s 21st birth-year celebration calls for serious investigation before you simply buy something that tastes great and stash it.
That’s because prayer does absolutely no good. A wine that tastes good when young is its way of lulling you into a false sense that it’ll be great in 20 years. It may not.
Remember the example we used at the end of last week’s column? I compared buying fine wine for the specific purpose of aging it to the buying of a performance automobile. Almost no one who desires such a car looks seriously at buying it without asking specific details of its ability to do what it’s supposed to do.
How fast it gets from zero to 60 may be tops on some people’s agenda, but automobile aficionados normally ask more specific, technical questions.
A good friend who is both a wine collector as well as a car aficionado said buyers of performance cars usually ask for details about the engine, transmission, suspension and lots more. He said if you want performance, the car must be designed and built to deliver it.
(As a winemaker once told me, a Ferrari is a superb flashlight, but that’s not its intended purpose!)
It’s the same with expensive wine — but my friend the car-and-wine nut says that it almost never is. “Most people are buying the wine label or the score, they really don’t care about how high the alcohol is or any of the other details that they should know,” he said.
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The structure of all wines includes acidity and pH. These two vital elements work hand-in-hand to either help a wine age or cause it to collapse — what I call Early Decline.
Many people who have purchased expensive, high-scoring wines have experienced Early Decline in one form or another, usually after waiting too long to consume them. The onus for avoiding Early Decline should be on winemakers, but almost none ever reveal technical details.
A Sonoma winemaker in 1982 and 1983 printed the acid and pH on his back labels but later abandoned the idea because, he said, he believed that factual data obliterated some of wine’s romance and mystique. He didn’t want his wine appearing to be merely chemical soup.
It’s true that understanding the intricate relationship between acid, pH, alcohol, and other elements in a wine is complex and poorly defined for consumers, not to mention daunting to the math challenged among us.
But what if a 100-point wine is perfectly made to taste great young and has virtually no chance of aging? Who tells buyers that?
One rule of thumb that works for all wines is that high-acid, low-pH wines (white or red) are far more stable and have greater aging potential than low-acid, high-pH wines. So, acid is important. But pH is more important if a wine is to avoid Early Decline.
And you could make a strong case that wines with very high alcohols will be strange with lots of age. I’ve had 17% alcohol Cabernets after 20 years and they are enjoyable to those who like dry Port. I’m not one of them.
Without a complete explanation of how to dissect a wine’s performance statistics, one key fact is better than none. And for me that fact is pH. Acid is next.
Here’s my simple chart that may or may not work, since I admit that it leaves out a lot of other facts. It is by no means foolproof. And it surely will drive some winemakers up a tree. Some may say that much of the aging process is left out of this discussion and that it’s absurd to create the impression that there is a shorthand method for solving this enigma.
So be it, but something is better than nothing, and at least it’s a start in getting American wine lovers to resume the wine education they basically abandoned 40 years ago in the face of rampant scores.
pH range and likely outcomes
• pH range: 4.1 to 4.2; Likely outcome: Sweet, soft, flabby. Early Decline certain!
• pH range: 4.0 to 4.1; Likely outcome: Very soft, flabby; Early Decline certain
• pH range: 3.9 to 4.0; Likely outcome: Soft, simple tastes; Early Decline probable
• pH range: 3.8 to 3.9; Likely outcome: Soft, juicy wines; Early Decline possible
• pH range: 3.7 to 3.8; Likely outcome: Fair balance; aging depends on acid+alcohol
• pH range:3.6 to 3.7; Likely outcome: Good balance; wines can last 10-15 years
• pH range: 3.5 to 3.6; Likely outcome: Tart, lean when young; wines can age decades
• pH range: 3.4 to 3.5; Likely outcome: Tart, tight; wines need a LONG time or air!
• pH range: 3.3 to 3.4; Likely outcome: Mystery! I have seen very few wines with a pH this low. Most are very tart.
Key fact: tenths of a point matter!
To better put this in better perspective, let’s add another fact: acidity. It’s theoretically possible to have a high-acid wine with a high pH, or a low-acid wine with a low pH, but they are extremely rare. Normally, the two statistics relate to one another in inverse proportions: low-acid wines usually have a high pH and vice versa.
The best way to analyze the aging potential of red wine is to know both statistics. And to me, acidity is not as vitally important as is PH. Here is my take on what acid levels contribute to red wine aging:
• Acid range (percentage): .30 to .40; Expectation: Very soft, almost sweet; won’t age
• Acid range: .40 to .50; Expectation: Soft, easy-drinking; not likely to age
• Acid range: .50 to .60; Expectation: Good balance; food-oriented; could age a
• Acid range: .60 to .70; Expectation: Tart when young, it will help the wine age
• Acid range: .70 to .80; Expectation: Very tart, young wines may be unpleasant
Key point: white and rosé wines do not conform to the above statistics. Different parameters apply.
It is obvious that both acid and pH, in conjunction with one another, are far more important than either statistic on its own. So, it’s incumbent on serious wine lovers to find out other statistics of the wine, including the accurate alcoholic content.
The real alcohol in a wine that is above 14.04% is nearly impossible to determine without a chemical test because, sad to say, some wineries simply lie, and the federal government, which is supposed to monitor such stuff, simply does not.
And even if the federal government should somehow determine that a winery consistently lies about the alcohol statement on its label, the government has no penalty whatever for repeat offenders on wines over 14.04% alcohol.
To better understand the aging process, it would be ideal if someone were to create a multi-dimensional chart, such as an app, that could incorporate not just acid and pH, but several other elements that are related to aging, including tannins, alcohols, and types of acidity (malic, succinic, etc.).
A red wine that should age might be a Cabernet Sauvignon with an acid of .68% and a pH of 3.55. Last week’s Wine of the Week had an alcohol of 14.5%, a pH of 3.66 and total acidity of .66%.
One line I’ve heard winemakers use is when they see a “sweet” Cabernet that scored 100 points. They derisively call such things “four-by-four” wines — because they have acid levels of .40% and pH levels of 4.0.)
In such cases, Early Decline is nearly guaranteed.
How do you find out the acid and/or pH of red wine? Start with a winery’s website. Few wineries put such facts on their labels, but many details are revealed on winemakers’ tech sheets, which may be posted on websites.
If that doesn’t work, call wineries and ask. Wines selling for less than $20 may remain mysteries. Chances are the winery person who answers the phone has never been asked such a question and won’t know.
But if a wine sells for $150 or $200 and you find that its pH is 3.95, chances are it’s best to consume it within months! Perhaps even slightly chilled! Aging it is nearly a guarantee of Early Decline.
A final point to add to the confusion. The colder the wine cellar is, the longer a wine will live. If you try aging a red wine that has a 4.0 pH and has a wine cellar with a constant temperature of 44°F or so, it might survive a bit longer. But even a 55° year-round cellar will not protect a 4.0 pH red.
Wine of the Week
2019 Miro Cabernet Sauvignon, Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak, Pine Mountain Vineyard ($38) — This is one of the finest Cabernets I have tasted in the last several years, partly because of its aromatic fascination with bay leaf, dried herbs, and other nuances such as anise, traces of lavender and tobacco, black cherries, cassis and a lot more.
But what really gives this balanced wine its personality is its amazing structure — it’s better after it was open for two full days! The acid is only .58%. (Winemaker Miro Tcholakov says it may be higher; he’s checking.) The pH is a solid 3.68.
On his website, his tech sheet says the wine “can easily age for 10 or more years.” With good storage, it may go 20! One secret is where it was grown, in a new high-altitude appellation that’s cool and windy. Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa has this wine for $27.99.
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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., 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 Radio, 1350 AM.