Some Truths About Wine

Questions of decanting, aging and the necessity of visiting the place where the wine is made
Jun 1, 2010

Whether it’s a function of time or just a personal inclination, I’ve always been fascinated with what might be called “truths.” These are the elements that transcend fashion, that eclipse even time itself. They both enlighten and endure, because they are, well, truths.

Wine admits such possibilities. A good chunk of the first book I wrote, Making Sense of Wine, explored just such enduring aspects of wine. For example, I examined how complexity as a standard of judging a wine’s goodness is not as fashion-driven and arbitrary as you might imagine. Neurologically, we relish greater complexity. We crave the stimuli. No matter what the wine—from retsina to Richebourg—we will, over time, prefer the more complex version of it.

Not every truth about wine is quite so substantive. Some might seem lighthearted, even frivolous, but that doesn’t make them any less true. A great French fry is no less perfect than a great soufflé, even if the latter is unquestionably a greater culinary achievement. All truths are equally valid. For example:

Nearly all wines are better if decanted. Now, this is a truth that I have tested innumerable times over the decades with just about every wine type you can think of.

So why the qualifier “nearly”? Because I have yet to test it with sparkling wines. I’m no great fancier of bubbly, and therefore prefer to get it out of the way as quickly as possible in order to get to “real” wine. (Yes, yes, I know what that makes me. You should hear my wife, a great Champagne lover, on the subject.) I do know Champagne fanciers who assert that decanting does, indeed, serve the cause of sparkling wine.

That caveat aside, I’m prepared to say that one of the truths of wine is that pretty much all wines, red or white, young or old, are better if decanted. Mind you, I’m not talking here about how long the wine should remain exposed to air in a decanter; that seems pretentious and overly prescriptive. Just pour the wine into the decanter, exposing it to some air in the process, and serve it when you like. I’ve yet to see a wine suffer for this, and I’ve seen an awful lot of wines be the better for it. Really, you can’t lose.

Most fine wines are at their best with 10 years of age. Like all truths, this is not an exactitude so much as it is reliably true for most wines most of the time. (When Voltaire famously said, "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," it was for just this sort of thing. You can’t let a demand for absolute perfection be the enemy of what’s generally good and true.)

You will almost never go wrong serving any wine with 10 years of age on it. This of course assumes that the wine has been well stored in a cool place. Without that, all bets are off. But if well cellared, I’m hard-pressed to think of a fine wine that isn’t either showing its best or at least approaching its best after a decade of aging from the date of the vintage.

Among white wines, I include in this such types as Muscadet (which is conventionally thought to be best drunk very young); just about any Riesling from dry to sweet; Chardonnay, Champagne; even Moscato. I would have thought that Piedmont’s great Moscato d’Asti, which is always drunk as soon as possible after the harvest, would be an exception to this truth, but the great Moscato specialist Paolo Saracco once hauled out a decade-old Moscato for me in order to prove that even this gorgeous-when-young wine could show unsuspected qualities with age.

Among fine red wines, I can’t think of any that aren’t pretty swell after 10 years of aging. Even wines that are rightly recognized as utterly delicious when young, such as Beaujolais and Dolcetto, are surprisingly resonant with a decade’s age. (I do not include Beaujolais Nouveau in this because, bluntly put, it’s not a fine wine.)

Does this mean that you shouldn’t drink any fine wine until it has hit the 10-year mark? Of course not. Rather, this truth suggests that never more than today, when so many wines are well made, there’s no hurry. And that after 10 years of age in a cool spot, nearly all fine wines can give you the best of both worlds: a still-youthful fruitiness and the greater dimensionality of flavor that only age can offer.

You can never understand a wine until you’ve seen where it’s grown. I mentioned this recently in a column about wines from Argentina. But it bears repeating, and expanding upon, if only because this particular truth has taken me a long time to recognize and accept.

No one disputes that it’s always a nice idea to visit where a wine comes from. But when I first became involved with wine I recoiled from the premise that I had to see the place in order to truly understand it. I felt, not unreasonably, that with enough tasting and reading and imagination, I could apprehend all that was worth knowing about, say, Volnay. I was wrong.

The key word, of course, is “understand.” It’s true that you can become expert, in the literal sense of that term, about a wine without ever having set foot on its originating site. At such a moment you are technically proficient, much like mastering a foreign language without ever actually going to its native land. It can be done.

Yet as anyone who has studied a foreign language can tell you, there’s no substitute for chatting up the locals. There’s nothing like hearing how it’s used, catching the subtle cadences and, above all, seeing how the language is inseparable from the culture.

So it is with wine. This struck me forcefully during my time in Argentina. Frankly, I already knew this particular truth about understanding wine. It’s why I’ve lived in France, Italy, California and Australia, the better to grasp and understand the wines. And why I’ve traveled to many other locations, for briefer but certainly illuminating sojourns, to at least begin to understand the likes of South African wines, Hungarian Tokaji, New Zealand’s many offerings and so on.

Yet despite all that, I was, while in Argentina, struck forcefully yet again that there’s no true understanding without your “presence in the midst of it,” to borrow a line from the poet W.S. Merwin.

I foolishly imagined prior to moving to Argentina that I had a pretty good grasp of its wines. After all, I had already tasted a lot of them. But I had no clue about why the wines taste the way they do, which is to say no real “knowing” of the culture that creates them and how that culture itself is changing. And how, in turn, that cultural evolution might transform the wines yet again.

This is why you can never understand a wine until you’ve seen where it’s grown. It’s why you can’t truly understand someone until you’ve met their family and visited where they were raised. It’s no different with wine—fine wine, anyway.

What are some of the wine truths you've discovered over time?

Opinion

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