mea gulpa

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I was taken to task by a reader who did not agree with my response (in a recent newspaper column) to a question about aging red wines. The question was this: "How long is it safe to keep red wine? I know one can keep them many years, but how about less expensive wines?"

My answer was that "most inexpensive (under $15) red wines are made to be enjoyed immediately. Unless you are buying pricey wines that are meant to be cellared, there is little point in holding on to any wine for more than a year or two."

"You do your readers a great disservice," I was lectured, "by dissuading them from laying down a good supply of reasonably-priced Washington cabernets for future enjoyment."

Well, mea gulpa! The irate reader went on to describe a 1975 Ste. Michelle Cabernet that had aged well, along with such gems as a 1992 Columbia Crest that had been enjoyed recently.

None of this is news to me. In fact, I did an entire newspaper column (later reprinted in my book) about that same 1975 Ste. Michelle Cabernet – and some even older wines – that had been tasted at 30 years of age and were holding up beautifully. So was it a "disservice (great or small) to suggest that most inexpensive red wines are made to be enjoyed immediately?

I stand by that response, for the following reasons. First, most people don't bother to cellar wines. They may hoard them, but they don't maintain and manage a cellar in which wines are rotated and tasted with regard to their ageability. Second, most wine drinkers today prefer their wines young. They like the fresh fruit and primary aromas. An older wine may be a disappointment. Third, a $6 or $8 wine today is not of the same quality as one that sold for those prices 20 years ago. A little thing called inflation has come into play, the current disinflation notwithstanding.

Fourth, wines are ripened to much higher alcohol levels on average than in the past. Along with that, there is sweet, often jammy fruit, and high tech processes that may hurry-up the softening of tannins and oxidation of flavors. Cheap wines often use tricks such as oak powders and designer yeasts and micro-oxidation and Super Purple etc. to enhance their flavors – not going to help them age.

In the case of really old red wines, that have aged well, they may never have gone through malolactic fermentation, which would mean that they actually required extra years (even decades) of aging before they would naturally soften up a bit.

So the fact that red wines from California or Washington that were made in the 1970s and 1980s may drink really well at 20 or 30 years of age, though delightful, is essentially irrelevant as far as today's wines are concerned. Yes, some cheap wines might last for an extra five or six years. But will they improve? Doubtful.

1 comment:

timbrook.nugent said...

Well said, Paul. Just a small fraction of today's output is made with aging in mind. While not as romantic a notion as we might like, it is nevetheless a welcome excuse to pop a cork and enjoy that bottle of wine tonight.

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