Ageing Wine (November 14, 2007)
Maybe there's something in the water, but of late I have been bombarded with devices that promise to make my wine taste better, faster. Rounder. Smoother. Less acidic. In this age of attention deficit disorder, it seems we can't sit around waiting for years for those tannin-laden Cabernets and Barolos to soften up.
The question is, how to speed up the process of maturing the wine? The desire to goose Mother Nature has sparked the quest for the philosopher's stone that will turn Yellow Tail Shiraz into Grange, or at least make Grange drinkable in one's own lifetime.
An old hand at the business of bringing back the future is Stephen Cipes, the P.T. Barnum of the BC wine industry. Set behind his Kelowna winery, Summerhill, is a model replica of the great pyramid of Cheops at Giza. The structure, at 8 percent of the original's size, is the most recognized icon in the Okanagan and the second such pyramid to be built on the property. Its presence is an on-going scientific experiment that Cipes has heralded as an overwhelming success. "Every day at 2 o'clock, for three years," Cipes has written, "we toured the smaller pyramid with the general public. We did taste comparisons of the same wine, bottled on the same day, and served at the same temperature. One was stored in the pyramid for 30-90 days and the other was never put in the pyramid. The results were overwhelming. The tasters chose the pyramid-aged wine almost unanimously as being smoother and having a better aroma! These experiments boosted our convictions that, indeed, a precisely constructed pyramid
becomes a chamber for the 'clarification' of liquids."
Then there is the chemical engineer Hiroshi Tanaka in Japan, who has invented a machine that zaps a bottle of wine with electricity. The shock causes hydrogen and oxygen atoms that are part the alcohol molecules to realign themselves, creating a longer (and softer) chain of tannins. Think of this as a kind of oenological fibrillation.
Prematurely ageing a wine is the antithesis of plastic surgery. Most of these ageing devices currently on the market employ a magnet of some sort. A New York wine trade worker, Jacqueline Peiffer, was first out of the gate when she invented the Wine Cellar Express. The original version was a wine coaster that looked like a hockey puck. It was, in fact, a large magnet. You stood the bottle on it for 45 minutes and your wine aged before your very nose.
The Perfect Sommelier goes even further. This has a magnetic base on which you place the opened bottle and a magnetic stopper that goes in the neck. You leave the bottle for half an hour and voilà it's mature. Now if only they could invent the same device that would work on teenagers. Apparently, the magnetic field creates a flux path of electrically charged molecules that lengthen the tannin chain, giving the wine a softer mouth feel.
Next is my colleague Patrick Farrell MW, who has invented the BevWizard, which looks like an outsized pouring aid. It fits over the mouth of the bottle and a combination of aeration and magnets inside "instantly (causes) the hard, small tannins to bind together, resulting in a softer wine."
The latest in the voodoo magic of wine ageing is the Eisch glass, styled as the "Breathable Glass." It looks like an ordinary wine glass. The instructions read: "The affects of the 'breathable glass' are most evident with young red wines and white wines, those which typically benefit from at least 30 minutes of aeration before being consumed. The impact is most dramatic with high quality wines, not inexpensive jug or box wines." The best theory is that the inside surface of the glass is pitted with microscopic holes that introduce air immediately into the wine.
I have tried all of these gizmos and they all work to some degree in that they make the tannins softer, but they don't necessarily make the wine taste better, only different. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but in employing artificial ageing devices there is something that smacks of the industrialization of wine the vinous equivalent of battery-raised chickens. I'm happy to let my clarets mature at their own pace. If I want young wines that taste soft and juicy, I'll shop in the New World.