Yesterday, I tasted two flights of 1996 Cabernets as part of a series on older California wines.
Each year for the past 20 years, I’ve conducted retrospective tastings. It’s the only way to assess how the wines age, and it’s both instructive for me and useful for people who collect these wines.
I'll be writing about my impressions of this vintage and two other retrospectives, from 1976 and 1986, shortly, and there were some real surprises in all three tastings.
One thing that is evident in rating these wines: It's much harder to assign one numerical rating to them than it is with younger wines. That's because eventually all wines get old and die, and it doesn't make much sense to pan a wine that's expired.
For example, the other day Marvin (yes, that Marvin) and I were talking about a review of the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard. It’s one of his all-time favorites (and he’s got plenty of options to choose from), and it earned a 99-point rating in the 1980s.
Yet the last time I tasted it, I had a lesser bottle and rated it 87, or very good. But I know the wine can be great. As wines mature, your experience with given bottles can and will vary. Plus, storage conditions and the quality of the cork's seal can result in significant bottle variation.
It's important to remember that any review is only a snapshot of a wine at one specific time in its life, and that wines continue to change over time. That's why, when you search our database of wine ratings, you'll often find a wine listed with several (different) additional scores. Sometimes when I taste older wines I like to put a "then" and "now" rating next to each other, to juxtapose my evaluation of the wine when it was first released with the way it has evolved. It's important to me to convey the fact that a wine that was once great is no longer and, sadly, has declined.
After all, it’s not the wines' fault they died. Should they be recommended? Not by me.
Might others enjoy these faded greats? Absolutely.
Should they be remembered and celebrated for the joy they once brought? I think so.