are washington wines ageworthy?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Art writes: “I'd like to see some discussion of the ageworthiness of Washington wines. This has come up before, and I doubt that I'm the only one who has been disappointed with a bottle that I've stored perfectly for 3-5 years only to find that it's already WAY over the hill.”

Great question. I could honestly write a book on this subject, but before getting into specifics about the ageworthiness of Washington wines, let’s step back and consider aging wines in general.

Why age wines? I think most people who keep a cellar would agree that one of the pleasures of owning a cellar is being able to drink wines at different stages of maturity. Almost all wines from anywhere today are released too young; that’s the nature of the marketplace. Not to say that some don’t drink exceedingly well. A good barrel sample is a joy to swallow!

The very act of buying and keeping more wines on hand than you can drink in a month or a year implies that you want the wines to be ageworthy. But how ageworthy? And what is the ultimate goal? Do you simply want to give very young wines enough bottle age to meld their components, or do you want a longer ride, that transmutes primary fruit flavors and aromas into secondary or even tertiary flavors and aromas? Do you even like such wines?

So when laying down wines, I think you need to have an idea of your personal goals and preferences. In my own cellar are wines that I am pretty sure won’t go beyond five years, and others that will outlive me. My goal is to avoid any wine from going over the hill before I drink it. That’s a challenge, but it works for me. Next question: what is "over the hill"?

Without knowing which wine(s) Art has found to be “over the hill” in under five years – and without knowing what he defines as “over the hill” – for his palate – I cannot give specific answers to the question regarding Washington wines. In fact, there are no one size fits all answers. But most wine professionals agree that ageworthy wines display certain characteristics from an early age. First and foremost, they are balanced. The primary components – fruit, acid, tannin, barrel (sometimes), sugar (sometimes) are in good proportion. The idea that a huge, tannic wine will somehow balance out and even improve with age has not proven to be true. If it’s huge and tannic in its youth, it will probably remain tannic and out of proportion in its old age.

Another important characteristic of ageworthy wines – they do not have obvious flaws. If a wine is showing brett in its youth, that will not improve with age. Same of course with TCA and most other bacterial problems. If it’s reductive, or over-sulfured, you can expect improvement with aging or just decanting. In fact, a good test for ageworthiness of any wine is to open a bottle soon after purchase, and taste it over a period of days. If it is holding up well on day two and even day three, you have a wine that should age well. This is true for both red and white wines. I have often left an open bottle of Chablis or Sancerre out overnight and they are usually great on the second day.

Of course, cellar conditions must be right for aging, and there is always the chance that any particular wine was irrevocably damaged before it reached your cellar. Cooked or frozen or left in the sun or something – once it’s damaged, it’s damaged. But all that said, the actual ageworthiness of any wine will have more to do with the style of the producer and the vineyard sources of the grapes than with any region as large as “Washington.” I’ve had many wines from up and down the west coast that had aged beautifully for decades; and many that had not. Certain sub-regions, certain grapes, certain producers have a much higher probability of aging gracefully and actually improving – not just standing still – with time. We can move into specifics as a further discussion if the interest is there.

Winemakers – you have the best opportunity to taste well-cellared older vintages of your wines. Want to chime in?

34 comments:

MagnumGourmet said...

Paul,

If you were told that you had to put together a mixed case of Washington wines from the '07 vintage that you could not touch for 10 years, what would be in the case?

Brandon Kubrock said...

Paul-

I give a tour and tasting called the 'Honor Roll' here at L'Ecole No 41 where customers tour our facility, hear our story, then we sit through a vintage tasting (they start back up this April and would love for you to attend one if you can). This last year I was pouring all different varietals from the 1995 vintage to current. I was amazed to see how well these wines held up! I even had an opportunity to taste our '83 Merlot and it was beautiful. After about an hour of decanting it was full of aromas of dried meats and dried fruits. So yes, Washington wine can age very well.

The only thing you didn't speak about that I feel effects the aging of a wine is the vintage. I hate to say this because with the advancement of technology and overall knowledge in both the winery and vineyards, we can produce a pretty consistent product on a yearly basis. But after tasting a '97,'98, and '99 (three very different vintages) Cab Sauv side by side you can see the effects the vintage had on the wine. I would love to hear anyone elses thoughts on this.

Cheers,

Brandon

PaulG said...

Brandon - Wow - that '83 was the first L'Ecole Merlot and put the winery on the map. A very important wine. The Honor Roll tour sounds like a can't miss for anyone visiting W2 this spring. As for vintage, you are right that it factors in. But how it factors in varies widely according to the things I listed – producer, winemaking, terroir, vineyard management. I tend to shy away from pronouncing vintages good, bad or ugly, because such comments rarely are helpful when it comes to specific wines. Thanks for checking in!

Magnum - I will take the assignment and post up something in a few days.

Anonymous said...

Having many older washington vintages, 84, 89, early 90's My take on these are no, washed out, little fruit. Now talking about newer vintages, Q-creek, Red Mountain, Walla Walla Cabs, blends 2001 to present Yes age worthy to maybe a Decade? your Thoughts? p.s. The bottles were older Hogue, Columbia red willow, otis, CSM cold creek , reserve cab and merlot all higher ends from the wineries Merlotman

Plymale said...

Paul, quick technical question: When you say, "a good test for ageworthiness of any wine is to open a bottle soon after purchase, and taste it over a period of days," do you mean to recork with room air (20% oxygen) or with inert gas (such as the argon based mixed sold in cans at wine stores). Thanks!

PaulG said...

Merlotman - I would agree that WA merlots tend to be at their best within the first 10 years. The bottles you mention - Hogue, Red Willow, Otis in particular – are generally cooler sites that would have been on the herbal side from the get-go.
Andy - I am not a believer in the inert gas products. I just push the cork in and see what happens to the wine.

Craig Mitrakul said...

Paul, I think you hit the nail on the head... age ability really depends on the style of the producer and the grape sources. Vintage plays a roll too, but I think the producer has more of an impact. The oldest WA wines in which I have been hands-on in production are only approaching 8 years in age. But, the reds that were crafted to be ageworthy are holding up well. I like to think that most of these wines will easily hold up for 5 years (which really isn't that long). 10+ years would be even better. I guess time will tell.

Randy Pitts said...

Great Post!

This post highlights a lot of what we can expect for some time. We in the wine gig are about to witness the big, plush, fat wine phenomenon cave in on itself. That is, the darlings of the major publications are wines that were picked way too late, aged in mostly new barrel for under 11 months and have no acid structure left. Perfect recipe for disaster. Now comes the aftermath.

In my mind, world-class wines are wines that both taste good with nightly dinner earlier on yet can cellar for 5-8, 10 years and slowly unwind revealing a BETTER, more complex wine. This is an important difference. An age worthy wine needs to tell a continued journey, slowly unwinding and whispering their delicate complexities, not just softenAll wines will “soften” over time.

The wines leaving most cellars today are not world-class wines. They are ready-to-drink "California Cocktails". Apparently, this unfortunate situation is not exclusive to California.

memphishusky said...

One look through Parker's last report on Washington tells volumes. The majority of highly rated wines all were noted to be very cellar worthy. I do my best to not touch a cab until it is 5 years old, which so far has never disappointed.
On a tour in Napa several years ago a guy doing the tour at Pine Ridge said he never touched them til 10 years of age...

Anonymous said...

Randy, Try a Delille. I actually highly recomend their second label D2.

Gail Puryear said...

The ageabilty of wine is determined by acid and pH. That is why classic German Rieslings are so ageable.
In the old days (pre-Parker), acid was added to get the pH to 3.60 or below. The grapes were also picked at 23 brix, making a more tannic wine. These wines could easily last 15 years or more.
With the 'Parkerization' of wines, grapes are picked riper and wines are typically bottled at 4.0 pH or above. Sterile filtration, not SO2, protects the wine in the bottle. These wines are ready to be consumed as soon as they are released. Due to market conditions, they are often 5 years old when purchased.
Our Morrison Cabernet Vineyard has a naturally low pH. I recently opened a magnum of '88 Morrison Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon which was not stored under ideal conditions, but it was wonderful. I routinely drink '94's. Our first wine, a 1985 Riesling is still drinkable. Chardonnays(a low acid grape),on the otherhand, have not aged well.

PaulG said...

Gail, thank you for posting. Some questions: why would lower brix automatically equal more tannic wine? Also, I know that pH has gone up on average, but bottling above 4.0 is higher than what I have been hearing. Is that for any specific varietal(s) - such as syrah for example? Sterile filtration is not practiced by all wineries, certainly - mostly by the bigger ones I believe. So SO2 is still important for protection, is it not? I certainly agree that high acid (and high sugar) wines such as riesling have great ageability. But for red wines in particular, I think the goal should be not only to last, but to improve, as Randy suggests.

Anonymous said...

Take a few Walla Walla AVA Syrah's (transferred to unmarked containers of course)to your friendly local winery, and see if they would do a few pH readings for you. After a tasting a group I was in did, we found two wines over 4.10 pH!

Randy said...

Gail,

I found a lot of what you sid to be true. Lower natural acid drops ph and acts as a prohibitorof spoilag organisms allowing the wine to age a full 20 months in barrel, pair with a much larger variety of foods and lay down the long haul. My RRV zins are picked 22.8 brix at harvest (3.15-3.30 ph) knowing there'as at least one point of sugar up we'll be at 23.8 brix. Multiply this by .62 and you'll have your future alc. I'm extreme with my acid levels but my zins with 6 years in bottle is quite tasty now but needs another 6 or 8 years to tell the whole story.

Parker wines seem to be more like 3.75-3.9 ph. I don't know anyone who bottles at 4.0 ph although syrah can easily get to 3.8 pre-ml, so 4.1 doesn't sounds too much off the RP mark. That sounds awful actually.

SO2 is a preservative and I am sure these flat RP bombs are bottled with at least 35 ppm. Otherwise the wine would brown out as you poured it in glass. I think we are all on the right track and would love to try a really old riesling. Jesus, did I just defend Parker Wines? Cheers!

Gail Puryear said...

Paul, here is my take.
Lower brix means less ripe grapes therefore there are lots of green tannins. These are sharper tannins found in green seeds and a less-ripe skin. Let the grapes hang and these tannins go away.
pH levels run from 3.8 to 4.2 on most 'big' wines - including cab sauv, merlot, even cab franc.
Without getting too technical, you really don't want much more SO2 than 50ppm at bottling. At a pH of 3.6, 51ppm protects the wine fully with free SO2 (free SO2 is the kind that works. bound SO2 does nothing.) At a pH of 4.0, it takes 128ppm to reach the same level of protection. So, most wineries throw in 50ppm and pray. We sterile filter because without it, the wine is a brett bomb waiting to happen.
As for improving wines, that is subjective. I think a lot of winemakers prefer the 'old-style' wines because they are food friendly, but we live in a market-driven world. I know we have raised the pH of most of our red wines to around 3.8 to get the bigger mouth-feel. In the old days, wines were aged to smooth them out, let the tannins drop in the bottle. They matured. The wines we make today are shelf-ready. I'm not sure they will last much beyond 10 years. And why should they? Aged wine is an acquired taste. Americans like fruit-forward wines, not ones with complex bottle bouquets. In that respect, wines are much better today.
For the record, Shirley and I had a 1968 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon ($3.99 at the winery) for our 25th wedding anniversary. It was incredible! For our 30th, I acquired a 1968 Barbaresco. It also was outstanding. I like aged wine.

Dave Larsen said...

Our Soos Creek Cabernet-based wines are aging well going back to our first year of 1989. I agree that balancing the components of fruit, tannin, acid, oak and alcohol is important in producing a long-lived wine. Concentration is a good attribute to have also. Most importantly, a wine needs structure from the acid and/or tannin to age well. A red wine however can age quite well with lower acid if it has an adequate level of tannin. The long-lived Bordeaux's I've tasted have all been very concentrated wines with excellent structure, primarily from the tannins. The trick in winemkaing is to get substantial but unobtrusive tannins. SO2 is less important if the wine is stored properly - a barrel of our 1998 Cab was bottled with a free SO2 level of 7 (accidentally) and it is still aging beautifully. Higher alcohol wines don't age as well because the other components of the wine soften over time but the alcohol stays the same, eventually throwing the wine out of balance.

Art said...

Needless to say, I'm glad I asked the question, and I truly appreciate all the informed and insightful feedback from you and your distinguished "panel." For a vino lover/geek/consumer reading a wine blog, it doesn't get much better than this!

Here's a related post from about a year ago on Garagiste's forum in case you'd like to share it with your readers:

http://www.garagistewine.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=6212

Jared Etzel said...

As with any wine region ageability varies like personality, that said I have experianced some great old Leonetti wines. Regarding the comments above on high etoh wines from any region. I would not consider some of these wines to be enjoyable upon their release so I would certainly not age them. Buy a case and drink it over many years. Decide where you like to drink the wine.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, great topic. I think the most important thing for folks to walk away with - especially folks that are new to wine - is that not all wines age well. This is a widespread misperception. I had a friend who had a $10 bottle of not particularly good wine that she sat on for 12 years expecting it to turn in to first growth.

As you and others have stated, there are a number of factors such as tannins, acid, etc, that will dictate how a wine will age. The assumption by the lay person is that if they lay down any bottle of wine, something magic happens. As you have said, not the case. Bad bottles of wine don't get better and good bottles of wine may get worse. Additionally, a wine doesn't need to be ageworthy to be a great wine. Many wines burn bright early and fade as dictated by the variety, style, etc. That's often nothing to be ashamed of. However, for the consumer, it can be disappointing if this is not what they were expecting to happen.

Figuring out how to determine what wines will age well and what wines will not - and whether you would enjoy the result in say five years - is part of the fun (and occasional disappointment) of the learning process. I think many wish reviewers could take the mystery out of this for consumers but unfortunately we cannot. Personal tastes and preferences play too much of a role, as shown by the drinking windows listed in many reviews. Some like to drink wines very old. Some like to drink wines very young. At present, the only thing for consumers to do is to largely figure it out for themselves.

MagnumGourmet said...

@Sean -

I agree with you on the fact that all wines are not built for long term cellaring.

However, I believe that due to the trend of early release after vintage that most red wines would benefit from laying down 6-12 months. Unfortunately, most wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase.

Aging a wine doesn't always have to mean 10+ years.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

@MagnumGourmet, very good point. Few newly released wines wouldn't benefit from at least 6 months of cellaring. While always true for higher end wines, I have found this increasingly true for wines in the "value wine" category as well which seem to be coming out younger and younger (say 12-18 months after harvest for red wines). Personally, I see releasing wines that are not ready in this price category as a big mistake. I generally have no intention of waiting 6 months to try a wine less than $15. They are "buy and drink wines." If it's not ready to drink when you buy it, it leaves a bad impression of the wine (and sometimes the winery).

Carolyn said...

Even lesser expensive wines could be improved by cellering,or rested for those of us in apartments. I have found that bottle shock is a very real issue and wines show so much better when they have a chance to sit a bit. Usually a couple of months is enough to allow the wines to speak about themselves more truthfully. I try to let my Wa. wines sit a bit even though it's not a long ways from Portland sometimes I have to hide them from myself but I think the result is worth it.

David Larsen said...

Bottling shock is an important point that I have not seen get much discussion. I have observed in our winery that no matter how we bottle the wine, it will slowly go into shock and then slowly recover afer bottling. This process takes about 4 months for the lighter weight wines but bigger wines may not recover and become stable for more than 6 months. Wines seem to much prefer being in a barrel than in a bottle and therefore need a long period of adjustment after being bottled.

Bob Neel said...

Opened a magnum of our (McCrea) '97 Viognier, expecting to dump it down the gurgler. (Why did we bottle a WHITE in mags, anyway?!) It was still light straw color, with terrific acid, plenty of fruit, great aromatics and a lovely finish. It had no excuse being that good. We routinely open mid-nineties vintage Syrahs at our private tastings -- with equally good results. And I wish I had three more cases of our '91 Grenache.

Randy said...

@ Sean,

Agee with most, alhough I feel as part of the undefined definition of a "great" wine, it needs to be able to age and slowly unwind over years revealing a BETTER, more complex wine. Otherwise we're merely drinking California Cocktails.

Anonymous said...

Here's another datapoint--I was at a dinner last night in which we all tried to stump each other with brown-bagged wines. One of the biggest shockers: imagine a rich, fresh, dark-fruited beauty with HUGE structure and liveliness. 2007 Klipsun or other young Red Mountain? Try 1979 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Cab Sauv! Folks, I would not wanted to have tried this wine in the 1980's or 90's as it would have sucked all the saliva out of one's body. The bottle we drank could easily last another 10 years in the cellar...

Cheers!
Ryan Johnson

Art said...

That's great news, Ryan. I only wish that some of my expensive 1999 WA Cabs were performing this well!

Anonymous said...

I get asked this question daily, “how long will this wine age well” For 95% of Washington wines, please consume them no later that 8 years. I agree with the comment wait 4 months min. after bottling, as I has I seen it happen.

One winery out there that their wines are sold at a very high price and in recent years is known as, should be consumed within 4 years. The folks that are commenting on this statement are in the trade, either at wine shops or distributors but they are still happy to sell these bottles. I know of one wine buying, an extremely knowledgeable buyer stated to me “ I love this wine because I can sell this wine 3 to 5 times”. A wine consumer will purchase this wine in quantity, and then bring half of it back to be resold again and again.

One item I didn't see noted is, wine is made so different now. All you have to do is acquire a lab book from any of the large labs out there. The technology and chemistry world has changed so much in the past 10 years, even the past 5 years, you would be amazed.

There are some very well make wines out there that will age well, but few in my opinion.

Don't wait tooooooo long!

Rick

PinkMoonWinery said...

Hi guys,

Well I'm a big fan of Cayuse and I have tasted most vintages. The 1998, which was from very young wines, was drinking beautifully last year. So I do believe that the current wines can age 20+ years, especially the 2006 and 2007's.

Tonight I tasted some older wines from Bordeaux (1955 Lynch Bages) and the Rhone (1979 Hermitage La Chapelle) which were fantastic and I believe that Washington State wines can age as good as these can.

Co Dinn said...

Hi Paul, good discussion,

Are Washington wines ageworthy? That’s a broad question. A broad answer might be (as with any world-class winegrowing region) “It depends.”

More specifically we might ask “Is it possible to make ageworthy wines in Washington?” and “If so, are ageworthy wines being made in Washington?”

In my experience, some vineyards in Washington have that potential. Those grapes have none of the deficiencies that would preclude and plenty of the characteristics which would augment ageability. Intrinsically ageworthy winegrapes are being grown and intrinsically ageworthy wines are capable of being made.

Given our relative youth as a winegrowing industry/region, it seems a bit early to categorically decree Washington’s wines as ageworthy. We are still earning our stripes.

We can, however see that the tenets of the concept are being fulfilled in some vineyards and wines to the extent that the answer could be (as with any world-class winegrowing region) “Yes, some are.”

Co

Andrew H. said...

Opened a 93 and a 94 of the Chateau Ste. Michelle Meritage Artist Series made by Mike Januik a couple of weeks ago and they drank like a fine Bordeaux. Kudos to Mike and other great WA winemakers

Anonymous said...

Paul,
In September I found a bottle of '78 Facelli Late Harvest Riesling in my cellar that had been hidden by other "family stuff". Assuming it would be brown, oxidized and dismal I opened it anyway just for educational purposes. It was every bit as elegant and exquisite as any German auslese I have ever had. Flavors were incredibly complex as well as intense.
I agree with the acid/ph people as long as the wine has sufficient fruit.
MMc.

ClarkdGigHbr said...

Dave Larson's comment about the impact of high alcohol levels on ageability is one of my biggest concerns. It's one thing to have lots of big, young, dark fruit to offset 14.5+% ABV. As that fruit morphs into more subtle levels of complexity, I don't see the wines remaining in balance. My most memorable aged wine experience was a 27-year old 1973 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cab (13% ABV). I suspect it would have been significantly less enjoyable with a 15% ABV alcohol burn going on. In general, I try to keep the big alcohol monsters out of my collection; the ones that sneak in get flagged for early consumption.

Art said...

Can you do a separate post sometime on alcohol levels?

http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/wine-science/high-alcohol-why-it-is-a-problem

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