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Ask the Master of Wine:
"How do I know, just by tasting, if a wine will be ageworthy?"
 (November 28, 2002)

Wine & Spirits magazine has been running a series of articles by North American Masters of Wine. The editor/publisher, Joshua Greene, has graciously allowed me to reprint these Q & A pieces.

"How do I know, just by tasting, if a wine will be ageworthy?" - Michael Kwas of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  Bob Betz, M.W., is Vice President of Winemaking Research for Stimson Lane Vineyards and Estates in Washington.

Bob Betz, M.W., replies:

The concept of wine and time has dogged us for centuries. Ever since we developed cork we've realized that wines can improve in the bottle, and we've wondered about the optimum time to drink them. Prediction can seem troublesome, but what gives us the best hints to assessing aging potential is the wine itself, through color, smell, taste and mouthfeel.

Overall (but with notable exceptions) reds outlive whites, light wines fade before full wines, sweet whites survive dry whites, and pale reds tire before deep red wines.

Color is a strong indicator of ageability. For red wines, deep purple, magenta and even blue pigments are the stuff of youth, an indication that the wine has miles to go before it achieves its full potential. Wines with these darkest pigments also typically have focused grapey aromas, the feel of astringent tannin and fruit-dominated flavors, more evidence that the wine is still just a kid.

As red wines mature their color fades. Tilt your glass so you can see the rim of the wine. If the "edge" has paled then the wine has lost its youth and is on the path to maturity. Fully mature reds will typically have an orange or "onion skin" edge.

Confirm your impressions by smell and taste: more complex, layered aromas and flavors indicate time spent in the bottle. Hard tannins in young red wines will also soften with bottle age, creating a more harmonious and complete mouthfeel – less angular, fewer elbows, more yum.

White wines are another story. They don't have those deep pigments to clue you in. Instead acidity, which can help extend the life of a white wine, is often an indicator of its ageworthiness. In youth, most white wines have vibrant, fresh grape aromas and flavors. When very young they may still be "spritzy," packing in a little dissolved CO2 left over from fermentation. These wines are sharp and straightforward (and often totally enjoyable!). Cellaring them should soften their hard edges, and with maturity these whites will become rounded, supple and more complex.

The goal is to drink wine at the peak of its pleasure, but estimating just when your bottles are at their best can sometimes be tricky, especially given personal preference and different cellar conditions. If you buy by the case, taste a bottle now and then and track its changes to avoid letting the wine go over the hill. Over a long time, "all wine becomes all wine" – both reds and whites converge to withered amber. The whites brown, while the reds lose their pigment, and flavors fade away. So buy lots and taste often, and in the end you'll find that paying attention to a wine's own sensory messages is the best way to predict just how long it will improve.




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