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The Benefits and Tolls of Age

There are only three directions a wine can go as it gets older
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jun 20, 2011 2:30pm ET

There are really only three things that can happen to a wine as it ages.

It can improve, which is what you hope for.

It can remain the same, which, depending on its quality, is usually a good thing, too.

Or it can decline, and all wines decline sooner or later.

I've been tasting lots of older wines the past few weeks and months for upcoming stories. For example, I tasted every bottle of Kosta Browne Pinot Noir dating back to 2000 with winemaker Michael Browne, and the wines were extremely impressive in terms of quality, consistent in that most of the wines had either held or gained, and demonstrated that the wines are aging very gracefully. It didn't change my mind that California Pinots are at their peak by age six, but of course there are wines that defy drink windows and can be aged for decades.

Last week I completed a retrospective of 2001 California Cabernets, and that too evoked the same response. For the most part, the wines have aged exceptionally well, so much so that it is one of the most impressive and revealing retrospectives I can recall in nearly 30 years of tasting older wines.

A few of the wines were, in one sense, genuine surprises. These were important names in Cabernet and their 2001s on release didn't show anywhere the depth and range of complexity they did last week. But today they demonstrate the upside of cellaring. The best are youthful, concentrated and well-built.

Another handful or two had also improved notably, going in most instances from very good or outstanding to the next level.

Some had stayed the same. For instance, a couple of wines that were very tannic a decade ago were still quite tannic. A few wines showed their maturity. In one instance, a wine that I've tried and liked very well in recent tastings had two bottles that were oxidized, wines that I omit from tasting reports if I know the wine has shown better. Most of the 2001s are ready to drink and in the few examples where the wines were showing gloriously they can age perhaps another decade.

It's worth considering, too, that wines can be great at different stages of their lives. A wine might be stunning on release, and less so a decade later; some promising wines shut down in their adolescence, only to re-emerge later even better than they were in their youth. It takes a truly exceptional wine to be at its most impressive after a decade or more in the bottle.

Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  June 20, 2011 2:48pm ET
i've been looking forward to your '01 retrospective. when can we expect your report?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 20, 2011 3:53pm ET
Probably within the week...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 20, 2011 4:34pm ET
I would suggest another aspect to aging, aside from getting better or not. Wines change with age. They can replace their fruit character with other more complex flavors. Whether we like that better or not, a wine may become more appropriate for different foods, or different occasions. After several years in the cellar, ageworthy wines almost always become something different. Noticing those transformations is part of the allure of wine.
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  June 20, 2011 4:45pm ET
Kosta Brownes Kanzler bottling has been one of my favorites. I have saved an 04,05,06,07 & 08. You rated the 04 very high on its release, was this one of the wines you tasted? If so is it time to drink?

James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 20, 2011 5:56pm ET
The 2004 showed extremely well, so you now face the choice, or the option...If you have more than one, drink one, save one...no better way to learn about your tastes.
Christopher J Ascher
Shorewood, MN —  June 20, 2011 8:37pm ET
I remember tasting a 2001 Paul Hobbs cabernet versus a 2002 about five years ago with my brother Mike. I thought the '02 was much better. He thought the 2001 was better. Maybe I'd agree with him today. Looking forward to seeing your retrospective report.
Richard Lee
Napa —  June 20, 2011 10:58pm ET
It is always interesting to read your 10 year retrospectives. You are spot on w/the idea of drink one, save one. I had a great Y2K Harlan on Friday nite w/some very good friends. It was very intense, well structured w/black fruit notes. It will still go another 5 years easily for those who still might have some left. Our group rated it 92 to 95. I haven't drank any of my '01's in a couple of years so it will be good to read your thoughts. Cheers!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  June 21, 2011 1:35am ET
I remember enjoying a 1994 Lewis Cab (regular Napa bottling) in 2004 and it was a revelation. Against all odds, that wine displayed a grace and structure that helped me to finally understand what aging could do for a wine. I will never forget it.
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  June 21, 2011 9:57am ET
I just opened the '94 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet last weekend when my father was visiting – the first "higher end" bottle of wine I ever bought when I started collecting. I had low expectations, because it had lived through three cross-country moves, several months of storage in a sunny dining room (until I was home from work one day and discovered that the sun was hitting it in the afternoon), and several other variables one would think would cause the wine to deteriorate. To echo what Troy said, it turned out to be a revelation. I, too, will never forget it, and as a result, I'm now re-thinking some of the drinking windows for many of the cabs in our collection.
Berg Atkinson
Alexandria, VA —  June 21, 2011 11:06pm ET
I really enjoyed reading this post, as it spoke to a very recent experience...Last week a friend and I found five bottles of 2004 Kosta Browne Cohn Vineyard at a local wine shop, and made the correct decision to buy all of them. We drank a bottle that night, and it was absolutely stunning. Everyone agreed that it was really an eye opener as to what a great, mature Pinot Noir is all about.

As Troy and Whit said in their posts, revelation is truly the appropriate word for those kinds of illuminating wine experiences. Those moments of revelation are truly enjoyable and illuminating, and it was great to be able to share that with friends. That night was actually a double dose; we finished up with a bottle of 1983 Chateau Rieussec Sauternes that was a revelation as well!

I look forward to seeing your notes from the Kosta tasting!
Eugene Kim
Houston, TX —  June 21, 2011 11:53pm ET
I have traditionally drunk my California pinots at a young age (3-5 years) but recently had my first aged California pinot at a local restaurant - a 2003 Williams-Selyem Flax Vineyard. I had no idea how wonderfully these can age, and I am determined to set aside a few bottles to watch them mature.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 22, 2011 2:16pm ET
Eugene, my experience is that most wines from everywhere are aging better longer, so it's fair to modify those drink windows, which I have done of late. It's a tribute to better overall winemaking a balanced wines. Wines that age well are the best evidence of fine balance.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 22, 2011 2:24pm ET
Berg, the 2004 vintage for Pinot Noir was one of the ripest I can recall, yet the KB 2004s were in great drinking condition. If one had suspected they were overripe and unbalanced, well, the proof was otherwise. Across the board great wines. Ditto for 2005, a very different. 2006 shows the weak seams of that vintage. Hope the rest of your 2004s shine. too.
David Orman
Toronto, Canada —  June 22, 2011 2:46pm ET
James, you mentioned that in your opinon California Pinots are at their peak by age 6. What is your opinion with respect to Napa Cabs?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 22, 2011 2:59pm ET
David, it's a similar peak, as California wines tend to show well early on and don't require as much cellaring as some other wines. The best 2001s, for example, are in great shape and the very, very best should go another decade, or about 20 years. For me, the top wine, the 2001 Les Pavots, is and has been in great drinking condition most of its life. It depends on where you like your wines in terms or maturity and development and whether you're confident they'll continue to evolve. No right answers. Conversly, a few of the 2001 wines had already peaked and are not a good as they were. It really comes down to a wine-by-wine basis. The expression there are no great wines only great bottles aptly describes the scenario.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  June 27, 2011 5:32pm ET
Jay, I drank the Kanzler 2004 earlier this year at a Kosta tasting. It was unbelievable good. Complex and layered. One of the best wines I drank all year. I would drink.

James, I am glad to hear that wines are aging better. However, maybe like you, I am really worried about missing a great wine by aging it too long. I thus tend to drink Napa cabs about 6-7 years out. I guess that means I'm a cellaring wuss.

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