Log In / Join Now

Assessing Older Vintages Has Its Challenges

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 15, 2006 12:36pm ET

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.

Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  November 16, 2006 5:07pm ET
Every November a local group of winemakers, chefs, retailers, distributors, docs-turned-vineyard owners, and all-round wine geeks get together for a 10 year retrospective. We do mainly Calif Cabs/blends and Bordeaux (usually 2nd growth on down) with a few ringers thrown in for palate cleansers, around 30 wines. The 1996's were a great group all around, but there were a few standouts: Cos d'Estournel, Leoville Las Cases, Gloria (?!), Pahlmeyer, Phelps Insignia; and a few real letdowns: Lagrange, Beringer Howell Mtn Merlot, Turley Duarte Zin (:p)

I would encourage as many wine lovers as possible to pool wines and do this type of a tasting. It's a real hoot, gives you some insight on what the overall character of a vintage was, and lets you know what to do with those wines sitting in your cellar.
Bryan Evans
New Orleans, LA —  November 16, 2006 6:55pm ET
I was wondering where you usually obtain the wines used in retrospective tastings and whether they are required to be stored perfectly since release. I bought a bottle of 1995 Groth reserve last year for a wine dinner and noticed the next week that your retrospective score was much lower than the 95 rating it had originally received. When we opened it a few weeks later it was an extraordinary wine and everyone agreed your original score was closer to the wine we had that night.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 16, 2006 8:07pm ET
Bryan, I usually get two bottles direct from the winery, where I presume they are perfectly stored (although many wineries keep their wines in warehouses and sometimes cases are moved around). Occasionally I use one from my cellar or hunt one down from my friends. Glad you had great bottle.
Tim Corliss
livermore,ca —  November 20, 2006 3:54pm ET
hi jamesI was reading your recent article on the top 30 california pinot noir producers. I was wondering what your thoughts are on Flowers Vineyard and Winery. Your collegue, James Suckling, has had some very nice things to say about their wines. I often find myself agreeing with your tastes, so was curious about your thoughts.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 20, 2006 4:22pm ET
Tim, I've liked Flowers Pinot over the years (you can see my reviews in our database) and they're a good example of winery that is making good Pinot. But for me the past few vintages have been inconsistent and not, for me, among the best.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  November 20, 2006 10:58pm ET
I agree with the Flowers, recent vintages have been sweet, but lacking on the mid palate and complexity. It's still a great wine though for the price point but there are definitely better out there. I just (yesterday) opened a bottle of 85 super tuscan that JS rated a 92, but way back. The fruit was still there, but the way was clearly past it's prime and the fruit began to die off considerably. Must say, in the company of friends it still was very enjoyable but just not a "wow". It happens, and luckily I was able to get some very good friends together and just enjoy =) (14 other bottles from my cellar too apparently haha)
Eric Hillebrandt
Colorado Springs, CO —  August 9, 2007 3:39pm ET
Hello James,What is your opinion on the Certificate Program in Winemaking for Distance Learners taught through the UC Davis Extension? For someone like myself, who is very interesed in going deeper into the wine industry other than being just an avid consumer, does the program have a good reputation and/or usefulness for future career opportunities?Keep up the great work for Wine Spectator!Thanks!Eric
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 9, 2007 5:00pm ET
Eric, Sorry I can't help you with this, though I know others might. Try our forums?

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.