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Drinking Out Loud

What Makes a Wine Ageworthy?

We cellar wines because we believe they will transform. But what qualities indicate that potential?

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 3, 2010

A few weeks ago, during the discussion from my column "What Syrah Really Needs" (short answer: time in the cellar), Robert Hight asked, "What is it that you sense in a wine that makes it ageworthy?" He added, "My experience in my cellar is only one or two out of 10 wines I open have benefited from extended aging."

This is what I call a "nub question," which is to say, one of those fundamental inquiries about fine wine that we all confront, consciously or otherwise. Anyone who accumulates more wine than he or she intends to drink in, say, a month's time, runs smack into this elemental feature of wine loving—wine living, you might say.

This business of aging wine for a better tomorrow proceeds from a single premise, one that often goes unstated but is nevertheless ever-present: the concept of transformation. There is no reason to age wine except in the belief that it will transform. This is not the same, mind you, as merely enduring.

Today, most wines will endure for varying spans of time if kept in a cool space. This endurance will vary with the grape variety and the region where it was grown, but nearly all wines today are well-made, and it's amazing how sturdy many of them are.

Yet these same (simple) wines, though capable of enduring, won’t actually change. If red, they may get smoother, shedding whatever tannins they had. If white, they'll slowly oxidize into oblivion. But nowhere along the continuum of youth to old age will they have become dramatically, dimensionally different from what they were when first made. They do not transform.

Now, back to Mr. Hight’s inquiry: "What is it that you sense in a wine that makes it ageworthy?" First comes this business that a wine can transform.

Most of the time your "sense" in this matter is intellectual: You're told that such-and-such wine gets much better with aging. I don't think anybody tasting a young grand cru Chablis or a great Savennières could possibly imagine what these wines can become after 10 or 15 years of aging in a cold cellar, so caterpillar-to-butterfly are their respective transformations.

Red wines tend to be less extreme, if only because they bring so much fruit with them in youth. You may not be able to imagine what, say, a truly mature Barolo or Gattinara might taste like after 15 years of aging, but the young fruit gives at least a hint of what might be in the wine's future.

With these examples you're dealing with traditional wines that have long histories of both appreciation and cellaring. You have reason to believe—thanks to reports from the old-bone contingent—that these wines will age well, which is to say, transform.

This is not the same, by the way, as knowing which particular producer or vintage might be best for that long haul. More about that in a moment.

Today, however, there's a new challenge: What about wines that have no significant track record? Will Malbecs from Argentina, which seem so promising, reward cellaring? Will they transform? Or will they merely smooth out and eventually just exhaust their abundant fruit without becoming anything different, let alone greater, than when they began?

The list of such wines today is vast. There’s a huge array from California, Oregon, Washington, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and South Africa that are unknown quantities. Even in Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy and France, whole new areas have been revived or radically modernized to such a degree (Languedoc, Rias Baixas, Priorat, Puglia, Sicily, nearly all of Greece) that we cannot confidently extrapolate from past efforts what today's wine-modernized future holds. We can only guess.

This is the key word in Mr. Hight's question: "What is it that you sense ... ?" That's it, isn't it? Today, with all these new wines, we can only sense a wine's aging possibilities.

When I was living in Argentina this past winter, it was this very question that I had uppermost in my mind when visiting Malbec producers. Are these wines worth cellaring? Will they transform? Not surprisingly, producers insisted that Malbecs deserved additional aging.

But their certitude became less assured when confronted with the question of transformation. It seemed to me that they didn't really know. Today's Malbecs, made in a modern fashion and with low yields, are too new to Argentina's wine history for nearly anybody to be certain about the scope of their transformational capacity.

So what do I sense—which is to say, intuitively seek—with such wines, whether from Argentina or California or Italy or any other locale?

You would think that the first order of business is grape variety, but it's not. Although grape variety is hardly unimportant, it's not necessarily the determining factor in a wine's ability to cellar successfully and transform.

Many grape varieties have not, until very recently, been lavished with the care and consideration that they deserve, either in the vineyard, the winery, or, finally, peoples’ cellars. I would include among these varieties Aligoté, Aglianico, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Gamay Noir, Melon de Bourgogne and Sémillon.

We've had some "messages," you might say, such as Sémillon from Australia’s Hunter Valley; some great Gamay Noir from Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent; the occasional impressive Melon de Bourgogne from Muscadet; and an increasing number of profound Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti.

Still, too few producers are sufficiently committed and exacting. And equally too few wine lovers have pursued these and other wines as assiduously as they might (or as generously in what they’re willing to pay), to say nothing of lavishing on them the necessary cellaring. All of this is beginning to change (particularly with Barbera, for example), but it's still in the early days.

Like all experienced tasters, I look for what the French call "harmoniousness," which is another way of saying that everything should be in balance.

I look hard for a sense of originality. The wine has got to have something to say—or at least suggest that it does.

Personally, I prefer single-vineyard wines. I like the intellectual tidiness of them. Also, since site is so critical to character, it offers insight into potential reliability for future vintages.

In addition to a rewarding site, other features necessarily must be present: good acidity, clean winemaking, an absence of excessive oak, and—it has to be said—a decent cork or a good screw cap.

All of these elements are important. But none of them will carry the (long) day without midpalate density.

Midpalate density is the key "seek" for me, the indispensable element. Wines, like trees, die from the inside out. A wine without a dense midpalate core has little chance of enduring, let alone having sufficient stuffing for substantive transformation. (A young, thin Chablis from overcropped vines becomes, over time, a scrawny, screechy older wine with depressingly little to say.)

What about Malbec, you ask? I came to the conclusion—not with certitude mind you, but only an intuitive sense—that Malbecs from Argentina with dense midpalates will indeed transform. A vertical tasting of multiple vintages of Malbecs from Achával-Ferrer, for example, demonstrated to me a significant and worthy transformation after eight to 10 years from the vintage.

But these wines are at the pinnacle of Argentine Malbec, made from very old vines and offering magnificently dense midpalates. Whether one can legitimately extrapolate from such "pinnacle wines" is a leap. But yes, I think it will be true for other top-rank Malbecs as well.

In looking at the wines I've actually purchased (in case quantities, I might add) for my own cellar, I can tell you that you can learn all about midpalate density (as well as superb winemaking and the virtues of great vintages) from wines such as Domaine Leroy Bourgogne Aligoté 2006, which will, in a single sip, persuade you of the potential of the underrated Aligoté grape variety.

Ditto for such wines as Catherine et Pierre Breton Bourgueil Clos Sénéchal 2005 (Cabernet Franc) and Királyudvar Tokaji Sec 2006 (Furmint), both of which I celebrated as some of my "wines of the year" in 2008. The midpalates on both wines are simply stunning, as is the deferential winemaking.

Among Malbecs, I'm planning on laying in a case of 2008 Colomé Estate when it arrives in this country, as I believe it's the best vintage yet from this remarkable high-elevation property in Argentina's Salta province.

Among Muscadets, I've previously praised various vintages from producers such as Domaine de l'Ecu, Domaine de la Pépière and Château de Chasseloir, among others. Just the other night I cracked open a single-vineyard Muscadet from Domaine de la Pépière, the 2003 Clos des Briords, and it was thrilling: vibrant, tingly with minerality and, yes, transformed from its original "closed fist" flavor reluctance.

These bottlings, among the many others I’ve tasted over decades of cellaring wines, buttress my conviction that midpalate density is the prime prerequisite. Every Pilates instructor will tell you that core strength is critical. And who wants to argue with them?

Ryan Schmied
Miami, FL. USA —  August 3, 2010 2:02pm ET
You are the man, Matt! Consistently the best reading on Wine Spectator.
Reggie Mcconnell
Indiana —  August 3, 2010 3:07pm ET
Thanks for the interesting read, Mr. Kramer. Your article prompts another question: What is involved in the winemaking process that allows a wine such as Dunn's Howell Mountain Cab. to be so long lived, compared to other California Cabs.? I realize Dunn’s wines tend to be more tannic (when young) and that Howell Mountain fruit is more age-worthy than other grapes from the area, but what (precisely) does one need to do in crafting a wine to give it added stuffing?
Jonathan Drake
geneva —  August 3, 2010 5:23pm ET
any idea Matt how transformation varies by grape type - eg malbec versus cabernet sauvignn versus syrah?
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  August 3, 2010 6:06pm ET
Mr. McConnell: You ask "What (precisely) does one need to do in crafting a wine to give it added stuffing?"

It's a good question and the answer is--in my opinion, anyway--that there's very little you can do in the winemaking itself. Rather, the "stuffing", the midpalate density that I refer to in the column, results instead from what you do in the vineyard.

The key, almost invariably, is low yields. Now, a "low yield" for Pinot Noir is different than one for Riesling. Where a low yield for Pinot Noir is usually reckoned at around 2 tons of grapes an acre (30 hectoliters per hectare in European terms), a low yield for Riesling or Cabernet Sauvignon can be half again as much.

These things are hardly exact. And yield alone is not necessarily the sole determinant. Vine age seems to matter. Vintage differences matter. What creates the low yield itself matters. Is so-called green harvesting, where a grower removes unripened clusters in August the same as starting the season with only a few clusters because of severe pruning or a poor spring flowering? Personally, I think not. But winegrowers assuredly are far better equipped than I am to opine on such things.

For me, the key to true midpalate density is that the grape already has it on the day it arrives at the winery. Winemaking techniques for greater "extraction," such as extended cold maceration or roto-fermentors are superficial. It's all just "makeup," i.e., a lot of dark color and flashy fruitiness. But it's never structural. And the resulting wines emerge, over time, as shallow--because they always were.

As the saying goes, "What's bred in the bone..."
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  August 3, 2010 7:01pm ET
Mr. Drake: You ask: "Any idea how transformation varies by grape type - eg malbec versus cabernet sauvignon versus syrah?"

I'm not quite sure precisely what it is that you're asking here. But I'll take a stab at what I think you might be driving at.

One element about the concept of transformation involves time. Simply put, a variety with what might be called deep "character reserves" such a Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, can continue its transformation over a longer span of time. You might call this the "Energizer bunny" school: it keeps going and going and ..."

This is why certain wines, such a great old red Bordeaux make such successful old bones. Just when you thought that at, say, 20 years old, the wine has said all it's got to say, you try it again at 25 years old or 30 years old and you discover, to your amazement, that not only is it still vibrantly alive, but that the wine still has yet more--and different and maybe even better--left to say. Call it wisdom, if you like.

Such experiences are, of course, exceedingly rare. We read about them disproportionately precisely because such wines are, effectively, newsworthy.

Also, much about transformation involves the vineyard site. Can we really talk about grand cru Chablis, with its ideal exposures and extraordinary chalky soil, simply as "Chardonnay"? I don't think so. Can we extrapolate the transformation of grand cru Chablis to other Chardonnays grown elsewhere? Hardly.

Transformation gives voice to soil. When wines are young and simply fruity, you don't sense the soil easily, if at all.

But when fruitiness recedes, you get to the bedrock, as it were. This is where the limestone pays off. Or the granite. Or the gravel. Or the marl. Whatever.

Chinon is a terrific example. Both the speed and the quality of the transformation of Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley's Chinon district depends mightily on the soil.

Cabernet Franc grown in the gravelly soils closer to the river in Chinon creates wines that mature sooner and transform to a lesser extent than wines from Cabernet Franc grown in the chalky/clay soils higher up the slope from the river.

Transformation is what's born when time and site embrace.
Eric P Guido
New York, NY —  August 3, 2010 10:46pm ET
I have to agree, you're a true writer. You're not just a wine reviewer or someone who writes editorial on wine. I've always enjoyed your work. This piece is a perfect example of why your name is at the top of my list of people I tune into when they speak (or write).

Steve Lutz
Yamhill, OR —  August 4, 2010 10:40am ET
As a Pinot Noir producer, I get asked all the time how long to lay my wines down. My stock response is 5 to 8 years. How would I know? I have only been producing wine commercially since 2004 and though a single sight, I really do have no history of the site with respect to aging. In fact, we really have no track record of aging the kind of modern Pinot Noirs we are making in the northern Willamette Valley. We manage the canopy different than 15 years ago, hang much less fruit and vinify these wines much different than years past with an emphasis on gentle winemaking. It remains to be seen if our wines simply endure or are transformed.

One thing is for sure, mid palate not only makes wines built for the long run, but for me distinguishes a great wine from the sea of other wine. And in my book, mid palate only comes from great sites. In the Yamhill-Carlton district of the Willamette Valley(my little corner of the wine world), that means steep, shallow soil sites with great exposure. And I agree, wines made from single sites are the most interesting because each year they reflect the terroir of that site and ultimately teach you something about wine if you pay attention.

Enjoyed the article.
Joey Hatley
Dallas, TX —  August 4, 2010 2:35pm ET
I have been experimenting a lot these days with aging wines and the past couple of years have become an exciting time for me as a lot of the wines in my cellar are reaching a suitable age for testing out all of the theories. I agree with everyone here that mid-palate is indeed very important, but one should not downplay the role that acidity plays in the process as well.

Case in point, I've had a lot of misses with your traditional wine varietals from different regions, but the Pinot Noir wines from Oregon that have reached 10 years old in my cellar seem like they could just keep on trucking along because of the acidity in them. We've been taught that tannins are the key to aging, but too many wines that are overly tannic completely fold when the tannins wear off and there is no fruit underneath. Pinot Noir is not known for tannins, but it sure has a lot of acidity. Same with the great White Burgundies....just another reason they outlast the California versions on average.

On the mature Napa Cabs I've popped open in the past couple years, it has tended to be the producers that focus on that almighty balance you speak of (including acidity) that seem to have more to offer now in old age then the blockbuster high alcohol wines of yester year. It is also no surprise that they tend to come from wineries that have been established longer and are used to making wines in the "Old Napa Style" as opposed to what's hot and new now. Don't get me wrong, I like those too, I just would recommend that people decant & drink'em young is all!
William Odom
Washington State —  August 4, 2010 6:06pm ET
An interesting juxtaposition regarding the aging wine is as the wine ages in a cellar so does the person whom purchased the wine. As the wine matures and its subtle nuances arise conversely the person who plans on consuming it slowly loses the acuity of their senses of taste and smell. So in my opinion all thing being equal a well-aged wine would be best enjoyed by a younger person who can still taste the subtle nuances than a elder statesman with a fading palate. Unfortunately most young people do not have the financial means or interest to purchase and consume aged wines. Additionally how many times has some well to do person passed away with a cellar full of perfectly aged wines begging to be drank? It happens every day, and as you know auction houses feed off them.
Leo Mccloskey
Sonoma, CA —  August 4, 2010 11:20pm ET
Is aging potential really just a kind of freshness index? If its not a decline is freshness, what is it that is increasing in terms of aroma and taste?
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  August 5, 2010 12:12pm ET
Mr. McCloskey: You ask, "Is aging potential really just a kind of freshness index? If it's not a decline in freshness, what is it that is increasing in terms of aroma and taste?"

You touch on a very interesting aspect of the wine-aging process. If I may say so, I think that a view of wine aging simply as a loss of freshness is a kind of "zero sum" approach. The loss of the freshness of youth doesn't quite capture the more positive, accretive elements of wine aging, any more than describing our own aging process as simply an inexorable loss of youth.

Without wishing to anthropomorphize wine, I nevertheless still can't help but suggest that wine, like ourselves, has a moment of birth, an infancy, an adolescence, a span of maturity, a senescence and finally a winking-out altogether.

This brings me to where I started in this column, namely the capacity (or not) of a wine to transform. For those wines that have little or no capacity for transformation then I think that, yes, your "loss of freshness" approach makes sense. The plus side of the ledger, as it were, is losing with little or no corresponding gain on the other side.

However, with wines that, for whatever reasons, do have a capacity to transform, the loss in freshness is offset by a very considerable gain in secondary and tertiary scents and tastes. Now, what the source of these "gains" is from a scientific vantage I am unqualified to say. But as a taster, I'm certainly prepared to attest to the sensory reality, whatever the origins. I think that many, many other wine lovers would and could say the same.

Worth noting about freshness, as I know you're aware, is that much of it involves oxidation. We know that cold slows oxidation. This, of course, is why we have wine cellars rather than wine attics (Italy's vin santo wines, which traditionally are stored in attics, notwithstanding).

The act of aging a wine is, oddly, a kind of one-step-forward, two-steps-back process. We put our wines in near hermetically-sealed containers (glass + tight closure) to prevent depredation by oxygen and then store the wine in a cold place to further slow the oxidation that is literally built into it. Then we give the wine time (years, even decades) for it to transform--all the while hoping to retain as much freshness as possible!
Mark Kurz
Yokohama, Japan —  August 8, 2010 1:31pm ET
It would be interesting to understand the "transformation" from a pure scientific viewpoint....any chemists out there?!?!? Wine lovers often talk about softening tannins, balance, complexity, etc. I wonder what actually takes place at the molecular level that can prove "transformation" is taking place. In my experience, I can say that aging and decanting allows the sediment to drop out of a wine; there's physical evidence of that, and I suspect this softens a wine to the palate. However, beyond that, your question of endurance vs transformation is interesting and it would be interesting if some chemical analysis could be performed on a specific wine at intervals over time to see if some slow-reacting transformation is underway that provides more complex compounds in the wine (or nose). Any idea if that analytical approach has been undertaken?
Anatoli Levine
Stamford, CT —  August 10, 2010 1:16pm ET
Thank you for a great insight. I always love to experiment with wines to see how they "evolve" with time. I definitely like your concept of transformation versus endurance, as we age wines to improve, and not just to sustain. Also, thank you for "midpalate density" concept - I only had being lookign for balance and sufficient presence of fruit, tannins and acidity in order to determine if the wine can age, so the midpalate density makes a lot of sense.

Great article!
Janet Lohmann
Arcadia, CA —  August 13, 2010 9:12am ET
I enjoyed your article and the interesting discussion which followed on wine aging or transformation. As a wine educator, this process is the hardest to explain to novice collectors. I've always used the birth, infancy to maturity and beyond analogy to try to explain how wine ages and why I urge people to properly cellar and hold a first growth bordeaux or CA cult cab upon release because of the wine transformation process, and learn from that experience if they have the means/ability to do that with 3-6 bottles from a good vintage. I collect and cellar my wines because I love to experience that transformation over time and taste/feel/enjoy the nuances of a mature wine. I've also enjoyed watching my son and daughter's transformation as well as their sensory levels have become more acute as they have been able to experience how my 1990-1999 vintages of certain CA cabernets matured with 5,10 and 15+ years of proper cellaring. Sadly, more wines are being produced today to be more drinkable upon release but the wines are no longer capable of being cellared for more than 5-10 years so you drink them young. I prefer the old Napa cab winemaking method but that is becoming a lost art.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  August 13, 2010 12:03pm ET
Matt, I wish you did even more writing for Wine Spectator. The standard reviews and articles are great but its this insight into wine itself that matters most. Its going beyond the most basic question of "is it good". I look forward to reading more all the time.
Demos Thanos
League City TX USA —  October 25, 2010 4:33pm ET
This is an excellent article. I appreciate the "layman" terms explanation.

I've pondered "transformation" myself. But I just didn't know what to call it. "Metamorhisis"?

My answer to wine "transformation" is DECANTING.I decant EVERY RED. And "YES" the wine does a "transformation". Whether it's for immediate consumption or consume over some period of time, usually within 24 hours. It doesn't matter if I've cellared it for for any length of time. DECANTING is the answer to it's "transformation".

I don't know if the topic of decanting has been written about in WS, but I believe decanting has been extremely underestimated.

Regarding "transformation" during cellaring. I would be willing to say that the vast majority of wine enthuisiasts with cellars decant anyway. If true, than who's to say that the decanting didn't "transform" it. Right?

Cellaring is two-fold. Does cellaring mean to purchase according to vintage and to drink at a later date? Or does it mean to "age" the wine and wait for it's maturity based upon the varietal? Or a combination of the two?

Regardless, YES, my experience for wine "transformation" has been from decanting, regardless of cellaring.

Thanks and I look forward to more of your articles.
Joseph Kane
Austin —  December 30, 2010 2:26pm ET
Interesting article.

Matt, what are your thoughts on high alcohol aussie shiraz? I was recently at a tasting with Chris Ringland who poured a grenache that was 18% alcohol. A number of his other wines hovered right around 16%. I asked him what he thought about the aging potential of those wines. He stated, and his logic seems sound, that alcohol, like tannins or acidity, is a natural preservative. It seems to me that your logic and his reasoning come to a head. His wines may last or be "preserved," but may never transform into something worth drinking late. Thoughts?

And second, what are your thoughts on decanting? I personally think that decanting often robs wines of all ages of its vitality, and does nothing to create a "transformation." It may mute tannins, but at what cost? I don't know how many already "transformed" old wines I have seen murdered by over oxidation through the use of a venturi and decanter. If it has transformed, why kill it, and if it has not yet transformed, why rob it of its signature? You can't decant a ten year old wine and make it a thirty year old wine, so what is the point. Thoughts?

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