By Dan Berger
Following a blind tasting of several wines, I took two of the best home to see how they would develop.
The following day, both had improved markedly.
No surprise, of course. The wines being evaluated were deep, rich red wines needing bottle age, so a bit of air naturally would help them.
I wondered how some of the other wines in the tasting would have shown had they, too, been taken back home to try hours later. Some would have been better, others would have declined. So how did I choose the two to take home?
Track record. They were from wineries that almost never make a mediocre wine. These houses’ reds seem always to be a bit backward when released. Since this was a new-release tasting of Cabernets and Bordeaux, we knew that not one of them was ready to drink, and thus their scores were initially moderate.
Both wines scored well in the blind tasting; neither was particularly stunning. Both were far better hours later.
The reason such wines rarely are impressive in a blind tasting is acid. For a red wine to age properly, it has to have a fair bit of tannin and acid to protect it from the ravages of time and oxygen. When wines like these are tasted within three years of the vintage, they are obviously going to be tight, lean, and not very voluptuous.
A week earlier, in a tasting of super-premium red wines, a bottle of the newest release of Penfolds sensational Grange also showed astounding potential. Similarly, hours later and then even two days later, the wine continued to open up and show its amazing depth.
Meanwhile, far more drinkable were wines that clearly did not have the potential to develop as well.
Long-time tasters of young wine often are good at guessing which red wines have aging potential. But no one is infallible regarding this guessing game.
In fact, on those occasions when a red wine I have cellared turns out to be wretched, I occasionally look back on my notes for clues as to why. And often there is a clue.
A few years ago, for example, I was shocked when I opened a magnum of a bottle of a famed Hermitage from the Rhône Valley and found it to be horrid. I tried the wine again a few weeks later, from a 750-ml bottle. Again it was awful.
I looked for my tasting book in an archive. Weeks later I found it. There in my faded notes was my comment, “Enough fruit for the cellar?” The question mark was my own little memo-to-self: was this wine structured enough to age for 20 years?
Clearly, it was not.
On the other hand, I was right to cellar the a bottle of Ridge “York Creek” Zinfandel. It was a wine with 13.8% alcohol and rich, spiced fruit. We opened a bottle of this in 2002. Zinfandel isn’t supposed to age for seven years, but this one was sensational.
One problem with many of today’s buyers of pricey wines is that they seem not to care whether a wine ages or not. And I have experienced a strange situation when I stage tastings of mature wines: Many attendees do not seem to like some of the best wines, especially if they had once had the wine in the past and recall it as being fruitier.
Most often the comments from those disappointed with really great old wine is something to the effect, “Gee, there’s not a whole lot of fruit. There used to be more fruit.”
The fact is, when aging red wine, you should never expect the bright berrylike fruit of youth to be there after a decade or two. One of red wine’s charms is that as it ages, the fruit of the fermentation vat finally gives way to the dramatic complexity only age can deliver, and it is this depth we cherish in a mature red wine.
The fruit in a truly great wine may well be evident after seven or ten years, but as it hits 15 or 20, the fruit diminishes and you gain depth. In 1986, a friend opened a bottle of 1881 Chateau Lafite and there still was ample fruit (for a wine 105 years old!), but its greatest attribute clearly was its complexity.
So when you see tasting notes that emphasize “massive” fruit, “powerful” flavors, “toasty oak” and “chocolate,” and no reference to the wine’s structure and balance, be wary of its aging potential.
Such wines (like 1997 Bryant Family Cabernet, with its 15.5% alcohol) may be fun to drink at age 7 or 10, but beyond that, aging the wine is a gamble.
Moreover, balance often wins the day. I have had literally dozens of older Louis Martini red wines that were incredible decades later. Never made to age, they did because of impeccable balance.
Sure, it’s nice to have fruit in a wine intended to be aged, but never underestimate the value of a silky and crisp structure.