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Aged Wine: Is It Better?

November 2, 2010

Here again is an issue in wine that really depends on your own point of view. Most wines are made to drink while they’re young, and the flavors will likely fade, fall apart or worse if the bottle gets too old. We already covered this topic in an earlier post, here: http://wp.me/p13tXp-1A. That article ended with a reference to how different an aged wine can taste from a young wine, and that’s what we’ll explore here.

Worth the wait?

First, we’ll assume that we’re talking about wines that are age-worthy, meaning that they should improve or at least not go stale after a time of proper cellaring. We’ll also assume that they’ve been stored well and are within the window of expected aging length (i.e. a wine that is no older than the period that it is expected to ‘age well’).

The real question here is: Will I like the wine better with age?

For example, let’s talk California cabernet sauvignon from a quality, well-known winery that is above $25, for the purpose of this discussion. A young cab can be quite fruity, spicy with a lush, mouth-filling experience, and possess strong tannins, which are a big part of the experience of the wine. If this is your kind of wine, then this bottle should be right up your alley. You would probably want this wine with a nice big steak or similar hearty meal.

Now, let’s take an identical second bottle, same producer and vintage, and put it in storage to come back to it in 15 years. What might we find? The same wine is probably less fruity than the young bottle. The tannins are likely to have softened, integrating into the wine in a way that leaves them feeling ‘softer,’ not as grippy on your palate. The luscious dark fruit that you remember has probably given way to more developed flavors, things that don’t make you think of fruit (like tobacco, leather or charred oak).

If the tannins have settled, than the experience of this wine might be more pleasurable to drink than the young version. But, and here’s the important part, the decrease in fresh, upfront fruit flavors may not be pleasing to you. The development of other, non-fruit flavors may turn you off. If that’s the case, than aged wines may not be for you. That’s a value-neutral phenomena, a personal choice that only you can decide for yourself.

In fact, really aged wines can really be a let down for some people. I remember the first time I had a wine that was older than myself, an aged Bordeaux (a 1959 Carruades, the 2nd label from Chateau Lafite-Rothschild). It was supple, lighter on the palate than any young Bordeaux I’d ever had, and I was struck with how little fruit was on the palate. But of course, this was a more extreme example, as the wine was 48 years old when I had it. The same night, I had much younger Bordeaux from the early 1990’s, and it was bigger, more lively and fruit-filled. (I am purposely ignoring that they were from different Chateau and would also have vintage differences.)

The takeaway that I’d like to leave you with is this: Though aged wine may cost more (to purchase already-aged bottles), demand your patience and ability to store them properly, or not be to your particular taste, it is definitely worth the experience. Not to try an aged wine would be like never trying a steak because you like hamburgers well-enough. You just may find that the excitement of opening a bottle that you’ve stored lovingly for 5 years is too great, or the developed flavors of an old wine too interesting, to ignore.

My own preference: I’m not a big fan of California cabs. They just don’t do much for me when they are full of tannins and spice and hot alcohol on the finish. But, pop a cork on a 10 or 15 year old bottle and I’m in. The mellowed, aged version is much more interesting to me. And don’t even ask me about aged Burgundies unless you want another 700 words coming your way!

So go ahead and find a great wine list at a better restaurant with some aged choices, or buy a bottle from a reputable retailer or auction house, or a wine event featuring older wines and try them out. A few resources: Tria has offered aged-wine tastings at their downtown classroom site (www.triacafe.com) or browse some old wines for sale online at Benchmark Wine (www.benchmarkwine.com) or WineBid.com (www.winebid.com).

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