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No Time Like the Present

There's no guarantee when it comes to aging wines
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 4, 2013 5:10pm ET

More than one person asked me during the Wine Spectator Wine Experience, "What is the fascination with wines aging?" To one inquistor's ears, several vintners emphasized not only the youth of their wines, but that they had long lives ahead.

It's a good question. In my experience, and to my tastes (I'm not particularly a fan of aged wines), most wines don't improve with age. Most of the time they stay about the same for the first few years of their lives and only get worse from there, so there's little motivation to cellar them.

But there are many noteworthy wines on the other side of the ledger. Old or long-lived wines evoke excitement among connoisseurs, a sort of time travel that can provide a unique drinking experience, provided you like the wines once they've aged. The biggest tradeoff that comes with age affects its fruit profile. The compromise: pure fruit vitality for the subtle nuances that may come with time.

I test my own taste preferences for wines of different ages all the time (see my recent tasting of 30 vintages of Shafer or my annual Cabernet retrospectives). Young wines almost always taste better to me.

Much of the admiration for older wines is an Old World affectation. The English, in particular, were fond of cellaring wines such as Claret (Bordeaux), Vintage Port, Sauternes and German late-harvest Rieslings. To them, a wine's longevity was tied to its quality. That is, those that held up the longest were the best. Aging wines also set the wine market off kilter. As the British love of aged wines grew, producers were forced to absorb the cost of inventory, hence the rise of the British wine trade with the money and storage capacity and the selling of Bordeaux futures.

To properly age a wine, one also needs a suitable cellar environment. A couple of years ago, during a Wine Experience tasting of first-growth Bordeaux, Baron Eric de Rothschild, an owner of Château Lafite Rothschild, reminisced about the joys of drinking old Lafites.

On occasion, when by himself at the château, the Baron liked to drink one bottle of his favorite vintage (1959 I believe) by himself. Of course, Baron Eric had a cellar full of great Lafites dating back decades. Lafite has a genuine track record for aging and gaining, and if one of Rothschild's '59s were to be a dud (and he would know) he could retrieve another.

It's also worth sharing that vintners aren't all in agreement on aged wines either: Angelo Gaja and Piero Antinori aren't huge fans of older wines; Paul Draper of Ridge is.

These days, many of us are lucky to have one bottle of a given wine. My advice: Drink it. If it's spectacular, then you can try to hunt down another.

Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  November 5, 2013 7:16pm ET
I agree. In the past bottles that I aged never lived up to expectations. I have a bottle of 1992 Silver Oak Alexander Valley that I forgot about. i can't open it for company & I am not even sure if it is drinkable. It has been stored OK but I won't make that mistake again. Off the subject but any tastings on Cirq yet? Jay
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  November 5, 2013 7:46pm ET
BRAVO! It's actually quite rare for me to truely enjoy an aged wine. More often than not, I find myself wanting something younger instead.

I sometimes wonder if the fascination with wines that could age was due to greater vintage variation in the past. It seems to me that with more modern growing and winemaking practices, truely off vintages are fewer and farther between. But if bad vintages were more common, I could see wanting the wines from the good years to last a while :)
Scott Fitzgerald
Dallas, TX —  November 5, 2013 9:44pm ET
James,, curious...how many years constitute an "aged" wine for you? Also, how does this reconcile with the drinking windows, often with a generous spread, in the WS tasting notes? I've just started collecting mainly Cali wines and would be interested in your thoughts. Thx.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  November 5, 2013 9:53pm ET
My first aged wine was a 1964 Lafite in 1978. Not a great vintage, but far better than anything I had tried previously. (I was fortunate to try the same wine/vintage twice more in the 1990's, and even in this poor vintage, it still drank nicely). I have always enjoyed the challenge of determining at what age a wine will reach its peak. I have been rewarded frequently (2005 Cru Beaujolais which sold for $20-$25 or less are drinking spectacularly right now.) Of course, I have had some disappoints, but not usually because of drinking at the wrong age or too old or corked. It is usually because the wine was exposed to heat--evidence of which is on the cork soaked past the very bottom (which is the only place one should find wine on the cork). Except for the time when my cat infamously knocked the cord to my wine vault out of the socket while I vacationed during August heat, the heat exposure almost certainly occurred on the non-air-conditioned truck which delivered the wine to the store. With the largest distributors eating up the market and looking to cut costs, wines continue to be cooked on their trucks.

Wines with structure have so many advantages besides being able to age: they pick up earth and mineral notes which add complexity and have traditionally been associated with "terroir", they pair more compellingly with food as they interact with the food while softer wines simply co-exist side by side and in their aged versions become more versatile, and mostly, they have a depth of character which evolves and reveals itself over time.

I too enjoy the vibrant fruit character of a young wine and appreciate that the vast majority have this preference, but I do have a problem when a simpler, soft wine gets the same score as one that is built to improve in the cellar. Harvey S. has scored certain $10 Washington state wines 87-90 points on many occasions while his colleague Bruce S. gives the same score to Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy which evolve over time and reveal extra depth and dimension. The former, as enjoyable as they are (and can even hold on for 4 or 5 years) are not only not as good as the latter, they are simply not in the same league.

John Gulka
Alexandria, Virginia, USA —  November 5, 2013 10:43pm ET
I can understand the argument against aging wines. With today’s wines being technically precise, generally fruit forward with high alcohol, there is little for them to benefit with time. They are often made for immediate or short term consumption. The word ‘finesse’ is not one I’d associate with these wine.

However, there is something to be said for those few groups of wine that actually unfold over time. For me it’s magical. “Transformative” is a word I have used with friends when opening one of these over the years. Specifically, 1975, 79, 81, 82, 83, 86, and 88-90 Bordeaux, 75, 83, 88 Rhone, 85 Borolo, 83, 88 Barbaresco, 70, 75 and 97 Chianti, 89-90 Riesling. All possess a clear, defined sense of place in each bottle. None are ‘the same’, even the same wine/vintage opened over time; each bottle evolves.

Yes, I’ve lost a few that were corked, but they were a small price to pay for the huge dividends we’ve enjoyed over the years. No, I do not have a temperature controlled wine storage center. This is the poor man’s version; a dark, cool corner of my basement holding them stacked in cases over the decades.

But I must tell you, it is not a ritual when opening one of these old wines. It is a necessity. Unlike the wines of the last decade or so, if these wines have been lying for 15-30 years, they will likely have sediment. They need to stand overnight to get the sediment to the bottom of the bottle. They need to breathe a while before drinking, and treat them like gems and you will be rewarded. The corked ones will reveal themselves shortly after you open them.
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  November 6, 2013 12:25am ET
Great story John. So much for proper storage. No mention of CA. wines. With a few exceptions I think your comment regarding immediate or short term consumption is right on. Are CA. wines in your collection? If so have you had any good results with aging?
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  November 6, 2013 7:42am ET
Thank you James for your direct angle at the question of aging. There are many wines that can and should be enjoyed young such as Argentine Malbec, Chilean Cabernet, Cote du Rhones, Portugese Douro's, etc.

Would you agree though that there are certain places, vintages, or grapes that really must be aged to be enjoyed? I rarely find a just released Nebbiolo or Brunello enjoyable, just as certain Bordeaux or Burgundy vintages can be so tannic it can hardly be adviseable to drink them young. Even some California wines can be very tannic where time is needed for the rusticity of tannin and acidity to come together.
Homer Cox
Virginia —  November 6, 2013 9:25am ET
Scott, that is a good question. Hopefully James will answer.
James Laube
Napa —  November 6, 2013 9:54am ET
Kelly, you raise good points. I've addressed tannins in the past and will again soon (see Tannins Don't Fade Away; http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/11252). The wines you mention are not among my favorites for precisely the reason they are so tannic. Still, the tradeoff is fruit freshness and vitality in youth vs. more mature flavors with time, and the fact that tannins (and acidity) really don't soften. More on this in the next few days.
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  November 6, 2013 12:39pm ET
I too agree with Kelly. Italy is grossly over-represented in my cellar, so I can say without any hesitation that Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello absolutely REQUIRE several years of cellaring before they are at their best. The same can also be said for many Chiantis - as well as Super-Tuscan blends - which can be very tight and compact when young. Cellar time is critical to allow them to unwind and add length. I have also found that some of the more "masculine" Burgundies (Gevrey-Chambertin) soften nicely with several years of cellaring.
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  November 6, 2013 9:45pm ET

Thanks for your writing as always. I interpret your response as one of follow your own preferences, tastes, and interests, and drink accordingly without focusing solely on the question of cellaring or aging. I love (as does my wife) Belle Glos Clark & Telephone, and I also love Faiveley Les Porets and Faiveley Clos de Vougeot. They both bring hedonistic pleasure but require different paths to get there.
Jim Borick
Skytop PA —  November 6, 2013 10:38pm ET

Maybe it was the way the blog was written that confused me? I left it to read the new insider and your first review was of the Lewis Alec's Blend 2011. Immediately following the tasting notes are the words "needs time".
Is the blog about the fact you don't like aged wines or is it about the fact that very few wines age? You state "most wines don't age". I guess that depends on what you are buying/drinking. I suspect most of the wine that WS reviews may need time. Anyway, for those of us who have followed you for many years - you are an interesting gentleman. Thanks.
Louis Shenk
Metairie, LA —  November 7, 2013 10:01am ET
For wines that are overly tannic and rustic/hard when first released, can decanting and time exposed to oxygen "soften" the tannins as readily or more so than aging in the bottle? Then you would have more fruit character plus some of the perceived advantages of aging. I would love to open my 2005 and 2009 Bordeaux now!
James Laube
Napa —  November 7, 2013 12:37pm ET
Louis, yours is the perfect test. If you have multiple bottles of those vintages, or even one, try them to see if they're to your liking. As for decanting, sometimes I think I notice a difference with aromatics, but it's less clear about *softening* tannins.

We have many articles and differing views about tannins. Try this: http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/9191. Matt Kramer just wrote about decanting and has addressed tannins, too.

Once you understand how complex tannins are, and where the come from, and why they're so essential to wine, you'll have a better appreciation for them. Me? I've learned to like them for a variety of reasons, not the least of which they always hang around.
James Laube
Napa —  November 7, 2013 2:43pm ET
Jim, in the instance of Lewis...The Lewises release their wines very early and I'm fortunate to have lots of experience drinking their wines. Therefore, a short period of cellaring is in order with very young wines. Remember, most vintners are still releasing their 2010s....I expect, too, that the 2011s will present some different challenges (late harvest, damp, cool conditions) and giving them more time in the bottle will help provide a clearer picture of the wine. Still, we're only weeks away from 2014!
Peter J Savery
Virginia —  November 7, 2013 4:46pm ET
My wife and I had a 1992 Silver Oak in 2012 for our 20th wedding annivery and it was drinking beautifully. But, you have to appreciate what the aging does, it is not as bright as it was but it is long and flavorful throughout. It was most enjoyable.
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  November 7, 2013 7:07pm ET
Thanks for the tip & congratulations on your 20th anniversary. My wife & I celebrated our 50th last year so I will soon open the Silver Oak.
Ronald A Fazio Jr
Richmond va —  November 11, 2013 11:56am ET
I agree and disagree. There are many wines i have enjoyed at release and have not enjoyed at release….. but when i try them again in six months or even 5 years after release i have found that the wines i wasn't fond of at release…. have been Unbelievably Great!!! I also typically like younger wines as well but have found that with the wines i enjoy most I buy a few bottles so i can open at different times. Two examples of this was when i received my allocation from Kosta Browne the 2009 Sonoma Coast I was kinda disapointed when i drank that first bottle at release. Then 9 months later i brought a bottle to dinner to my wife's favorite restaurant on her birthday…. and seriously couldn't stop talking about how great this wine throughout the entire dinner just to find out the next week it was WS #1 wine. Just recently i have opened on two separate occasions opened a bottle of MollyDookers 2009 blue eyed boy and 2009 GigglePot. Also was not a huge fan on release…. but now 4 years later I thought they were two of the best wines wines they have ever made…. and i have had all of thier wines and vintages!

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