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.