Wine & Spirits
Making Old Bones
Richard Nalley 03.12.07

In great wines, aging is everything.... Isn't it?

I was slurping wine one summer afternoon in the cellar of Châteauneuf-du-Pape's famous Château Beaucastel. The proprietor had ducked into a musty corner to unearth a very old bottle of white wine that turned out, he and I agreed, to be well past its prime. It tasted, let's be honest, like a soggy wool blanket lightly dipped in honey. At about that moment, Monsieur Perrin's other visitors, a refined English couple, sauntered over, holding their glasses of the same wine aloft in salute. "Well," said the man, his eyes alight, "this wine has quite a future!"

Right there, I learned two things: Number one, a wine that tastes well-aged to you is "well-aged." To you. And number two: How well a wine has aged--and when you open it--spells the difference between nectar and salad dressing, between down the hatch and down the drain. Oh, and there was a lesson number three: Sometimes stereotypes hit the bull's-eye. We Americans, according to wine-world wisdom, drink our wine too young, the British too old (their cross-Channel enablers call it the goût anglais, the English taste) and the French somewhere comfortably in between.

Hitting a fabulous wine in that perfect zone--velvet soft with a perfectly mingled perfume of exotic spice, cedar and truffle, perhaps--is the kind of eye-opener that turns casual wine drinkers into wine nuts. You want to go there again, to savor the moments when each sip is so elevated, so charged with sensory information that it seems to take an hour to drink a glassful. So how can we--or the French, for that matter--be certain when a wine will be in that optimal, "French" drinking range? We, uh, we can't.

There is more mumbo jumbo and sketchy wine-talk about "a perfectly aged bottle" than just about anything else in wine tasting, and that's saying a lot. Start with the fact that almost all wines are made to be consumed the minute they hit the store shelf and have a limited window of improvement, if any. If you never buy wine for more than $25 a bottle, you can strike "cellar my collection" off your to-do list. On the other hand, the pricey few with the potential to bloom and flourish, to transform themselves after years in the bottle, are no sure bet either.

The warning that accompanies a stock prospectus--"Past performance is no guarantee of future results"--ought to be stamped on every case of collectible wine. Yet the wine experts race one another to be the earliest to "judge" new vintages, routinely advising readers to shell out for new, still-purple wines based solely on their projected potential. The experts will further assure us that these wines will be "best consumed" in, say, "12 to 15 years," a judgment based on a feel for the winery's track record and any similarity with the vintage and the growing conditions of some previous benchmark year. In other words, a wild-assed guess.

Whatever motivates you to open your wallet for a newly released fine wine, whether you plan to cherish it for the ages or polish it off in the liquor store parking lot, its potential aging ability--that guess--is built into its price from the start. "One of the major ways you define greatness in a wine is in what it may become when it matures," explains Mannie Berk of the Rare Wine Company in Sonoma, which specializes in selling old and collectible wines. "It's the measure of its stature and marketplace value."

But even the market's blue chips can face an uncertain future. You may want to think of them the way Ohio State coach Woody Hayes thought of the forward pass, as a not-entirely-justifiable leap of faith. "Three things can happen when you throw the ball," he would say, "and two of them are bad."

Among other things, a breakdown anywhere in a bottle's past storage--cases left too long on a hot loading dock in Le Havre or forgotten in somebody's hall closet--can diminish the wine forever. The older it is when you buy it, obviously, the greater the potential for hidden damage. Or maybe the wine has just gone out of balance over time, a process Clark Smith, president of Sonoma-based wine consultants Vinovation, likens to béarnaise sauce curdling ("You know how suddenly all the flavors, the lemon and onion and tarragon that worked so well when they were integrated, come roaring out?").

Even an iconic wine's initial rave reviews can be downgraded as it ages. Your wildly expensive 1961 Château Lafite-Rothschild? You felt the pain in 2005 when market-mover Robert Parker disdained it as part of a mediocre era at Lafite and wrote, "It has always remained a mystery to me why more wine critics did not cry foul…."

And then there are the vagaries of the bazaar. In his book Keys to the Cellar, Peter Meltzer cites three sales within a few months of one another in 2004. In the first, at NYWinesChristie's, a case of the coveted Leroy La Romanée 1953 from Burgundy sold for $49,350; just a month later at the same auction house, another case of the same wine sold for $19,975 and then another at Acker Merrall & Condit for $17,550. Go figure old wine.

It is mysterious, alright, but the sensuous superiority of aged wine has been touted since forever. It would have been obvious to the first grape-squashers of prehistory who managed to seal up a jug, and is expressed as gospel truth in Luke 5:39, when Jesus uses the notion as an example of something commonly known to all: "And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'"

So what makes old wine better? For one thing, of course, aged wine is mellower, but that mattered much more in the past than it does today. A generation ago, many of the world's most prized, collectible reds--Grand Cru Bordeaux, for example, or top Italian Barolos--were often raspy, tonsil-searing or just plain "dumb" when first bottled. Cellaring them was not a preference but a necessity.

These days many of the great luxury wines--in fact, most wines in general--are being harvested later and put through regimens in the winery that make them more approachable when first released. But for wine-lovers, mellow is just a marker along the way; it is after that when things start to get really interesting. This is the root difference between collecting wine and, say, Crown Derby porcelain or model trains: Those plates and Lionel-gauge locomotives will reliably behave themselves. Meanwhile, down in the basement, your '59 Bonnes Mares is getting jiggy with it.

Wine is not, as some people like to say, "a living thing," but it is an active thing. It is sealed inside its bottle with a very limited amount of air (a cork is nothing more than a 17th-century technology for keeping wine in and oxygen out), and carries--in the case of red wine--a host of chemical compounds with names like polymerized anthocyan. (An intelligent summary can be found in The Oxford Companion to Wine.) These compounds are engaged in a kind of chemical polka, paired interactions (oxidation to reduction and back again) that work on the wine's components and--in the right wine--evolve toward an intricate complexity.

"It's like going from one dimension of the experience to two and then to three dimensions," says Terry Leighton of California's Kalin Cellars, a rare winemaker who cellars his bottles for five to seven years before selling them, for that very reason.

As a wine ages, its aromas transform. The primary fragrance associated with the grape itself (cassis and blackberry, say, in the case of Cabernet) and the secondary characteristics of the winemaking and fermentation processes (things like butter, vanilla, oak) mingle with other compounds present to form ethereal and not always foreseeable tertiary aromas. This is what the old-fashioned wine word "bouquet" describes: a mélange of qualities, as with a mix of flowers, that integrates into a harmonious whole.

Mannie Berk puts it this way: "The texture changes, the tannins soften, wood flavors from the barrel are absorbed, the fruit transforms into sweetness, and the flavors are more of the spice and earth families, you get things like cedar, tobacco, licorice. The whole experience is moving farther and farther away from the raw components of grape juice and alcohol."

The farther the wine moves, the more a drinker's vocabulary has to stretch out of shape to describe it and the more it becomes something that simply has to be experienced. The most famous arbiter of finely aged wine, former Christie's wine chief Michael Broadbent, for instance, describes an 1890 Château Latour tasted in 1977: "Bouquet sweet and noted as gamey, like a well-hung pheasant." Well…I'm sure I wouldn't know.

Aged wines also have a way of refuting expectations. Beyond fortified wine aging champs like Port and Madeira and sweet wines like Tokaji and Sauternes, the longest-lived wines are generally thought to be big-structured, more tannic reds. And for real aging potential you want to buy the wine in a magnum or larger-format bottle (perhaps because of the greater ratio of wine to the air pocket in the neck). None of those things is wrong. But one of the more remarkable wines I have ever tasted was a 100-year-old German Riesling from a regular, 750ml bottle; it was lively, fresh, dry and carrying all of about nine percent alcohol. And you can visit cellars all over the world where winemakers will open old bottles, red and white, that "impossibly" defy the ages (not to mention the reference guide ratings).

Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, many European drinkers are smugly secure in their conviction that California wines "don't age." When a panel of French experts chose California wines over French giants in the famous "Judgment of Paris" blind tasting in 1976, some explained it away by saying that the California wines were flashy when young but that time would sift out the true aristocrats. How then to explain the results of a celebrated retaste in 2006? The winner: Ridge Monte Bello 1971 from the Santa Cruz Mountains; runner-up: 1976's original winner, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 from Napa Valley.

On another occasion, Ridge's esteemed winemaker, Paul Draper, along with a Bordeaux wine merchant and a number of seasoned tasters, matched a 1935 Simi Zinfandel from California against a 1924 Château Margaux in a blind tasting. Terrible mismatch, right? Wrote Draper, "Both were in perfect condition and there were no signs that either was beginning to fade. It was agreed that one of the wines was an old [Bordeaux], but the group was evenly split on which one."

This illustrates another strange point about old wines--at a certain age they seem to converge. As different as a young Corton (Pinot Noir) from Burgundy might be from a young Hermitage (Syrah) from the Rhône, put two 30-year-old examples from fine vintages together, and you may be surprised by their sensory overlap. Just as aging wines seem to evolve away from their base materials, they also, it appears, age away from the particularity of their original grapes. Says Berk, "Whether they were a Barolo or a Cabernet becomes less important. What grows in importance is cellaring and initial quality."

Maybe the only thing that is absolutely clear about aging wine is that you must stay the course, or buy it from someone who has. Every known way to "accelerate" aging, like turning up the heat in your cellar, has a downside (in this case, losing aromatic subtleties). Various magnets and aging devices with names such as Perfect Sommelier evoke mostly skepticism. Clark Smith, whose Vinovation is known for its cutting-edge technologies, says, "People bring me a new [age accelerator] every six months. It's like magic crystals and pyramids; I haven't seen any that do anything."