It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future
A long life has always been attached to the concept of a big wine. Why? Can something not be great merely because it isn’t durable?
The answer doesn’t seem to be that simple, but if we compare ephemeral to evanescent, it’s obvious which one stands for archetypical value. The whole of human culture can be regarded as a race against the passing of time, but let’s just stay with the matter of the shelf-life of food products. Since the fridge has become standard kitchen equipment, it’s hard to imagine what a critical issue it was to avoid food going off for thousands of years. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the discovery of preservation methods, making cheese, the elaboration of the technology of salting or smoking assisted the well-being of mankind more than the invention of the steam engine or the moon landing.
But what has all this got to do with wine? The favourite mantra of every winemaker is that ‘wine is a living thing’. And as long as it lives, it also changes – preferably towards its best. We shall make an important distinction between durability and ageability. The former only means preserving the quality, while the latter promises an improvement in quality. Long life in wine is valuable because it ushers in improvement. Even the fact that a food item can be kept for years, or even for decades without deteriorating in quality, let alone improving, maturation is indeed miraculous. And a good wine can do that.
The brief history of ageing
Even the ancient Greeks observed the miraculous metamorphosis of wine, and the Romans held mature wines in great respect. The most valuable Roman wine, Falernian, was aged for decades and it was documented that the excellent 121 BC vintage was in fine shape even at the age of 200. Of course, wherever value is created, forgery will appear too. It is known from Galenus’ writings that demand kickstarted research and development, and small-producer scientists made fake ancient wines via heating and smoking. In the next thousand years, after the fall of the Roman Empire, no one even thought about ageing, and poor-quality wines of wine culture’s dark Middle Ages were lucky to live for a few months. Durable wines – except for the sweet ones – were not made until as late as the 16th century. The lasting quality of German Riesling was due to the constant filling of the large barrels, the cold cellars and the high acidity and sugar-content of the wines. Ageing, as we know it today, was brought about in the next century by the British, who did not have their own grapes but were enthusiastic imbibers of Bordeaux and Port, and realised that using bottles and corks were more practical for their small-group consumption than barrels.
What does time do to wine?
A fruit bowl painted in lively colours start to fade, the contrasts wash away and the surface becomes tarnished. The sharp summer sunshine is replaced by blunter autumn light, the place of sour cherries, cherries and blackberries is taken up by rosehip, medlar fruit, walnut and fallen leaves. The change is similarly obvious on the palate. The texture of the wine smoothens, the tension is slackened, rough surfaces get chiselled, the diverging forces stand in line, and dissonance starts to point toward harmony. What was boisterous earlier becomes softer, what was barely audible gets stronger.
Some regard it as a loss. There are people who prefer the zest, the shine and the exuberance of young wines. They are lucky, because those who wish to experience the beauty of mature wines need a lot of money or patience, and also a fair bit of luck. For ageing is not a game with previously established results, the votary abstinence doesn’t always pay off. Most wines don’t age but get tired. The unpredictability of the process was summed up best by Harry Waugh, former estate manager of Chateau Latour: “There are no great wines, only great bottles.”
Ageing is colour-dependant
The ageing of wines is fundamentally defined by two factors: oxygen and temperature. With time reds get lighter, the whites darker. More or less that’s how we can sum up what we know for certain. We deem to know a lot more, but that knowledge is fairly shaky. The example of tannins shows how much this is so. If we open up an oenological textbook, we will find that older red wines lose their roughness because the tannins start binding into longer and longer chains, until due to their weight, they sink down to the bottom of the bottle, subside as residue and hence the source of exaggerated tannins is gone. However, the latest research suggests that we in fact feel that the shorter tannin chains are softer and smoother, while the long ones are drying. Thus, based on the earlier theory, older wines should be even more tannic.
However, there is no argument about the fact that phenols are responsible for the changes brought along with age. Phenols can mainly be found in the grapes’ skins, and include the blue and red anthocyanins, which along with colourless flavonoids and a constringing-effect form the pigmented tannins that give the colour and texture of red wines. Comprehending what exactly happens to these components and why should left to the scientists. What is important to us is the result we experience with our senses: the disturbingly rough tannins disappear, and flavours reach the peak of their complexity. The four main components of red wine: fruit, oak, acids and tannins become integrated and balanced, and furthermore, aromas of ageing also appear, such as the wet forest floor, mushroom, leather and game.
If the ageing mechanism of reds is insufficiently understood, the same question with white wines is even harder to answer. There are a lot fewer of the phenols than with the reds and that would be enough to explain the more modest ageing potential of the whites, but it’s enough to look at the two most valuable and most often aged white varieties to see we’re on the wrong path. Riesling, which is relatively poor in phenols, can be aged a lot longer than Chardonnay, which is richer in phenols. Based on the facts gained from experience, what we can possibly state is that the white wines which can be aged for several decades usually have very high levels of acidity and don’t go through malolactic fermentation.
Unluckily, nobody can predict when a wine will reach the state of complete maturity and when it will start going downhill. What’s certain is that the oxygen and heat speed up the processes and quick ageing cannot achieve the desired state. If big mature wines had a recipe, it wouldn’t include baking in the oven but sous vide.
Conditions of ageing
The conditions of ageing are identical to the conditions of storage. If we store our bottles right, then we’ve done everything that depended on ourselves. The rest is up to the wine and time. The description of ideal storage is more or less identical to that of a cellar: darkness, a constant low temperature, high humidity and undisturbed rest. The perfect solution would be that anytime we feel like having a mature wine, we could have it brought up from the producer’s cellar. Not being able to do so, we can make do with a wine fridge, but it’s good to know that no matter how careful we are with the wines we obtain from merchants, world-travelled wines always fall behind those that are kept in the original cellar, both in terms of quality and longevity.
For how long?
As one of the top sports managers of all time, Yogi Berra, once said: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” It’s usually true about good-quality reds that they live longer than our patience lasts and would mature for even longer if we left them to it. A good Bordeaux, Barolo or Rioja is still young at the age of 10. A 5-year period of ageing does good to most reds. Surprisingly the longest-living variety, Tempranillo, is not especially rich in tannins, and well-kept Riojas can be in peak shape even at the age of 40 or 50.
Contrary to this, dry whites are rarely worth maturing for longer than 3-5 years. A year or two benefits even reductive reds. With barrel-fermented or barrel-aged whites that are more serious, the expected development span closes at the age of 10.
On the question of durability, natural sweet whites compete with the red record-breakers. Owing to the high acidity and even higher sugar content, a Tokaji Aszú or a German Trockenbeerenauslese develop, with the most conservative estimation, for 35 years and keep their value for a person’s lifetime.
Traditional method sparkling wines supposedly don’t require further ageing after being put on the market. However, according to experienced Champagne lovers, this is a novice’s approach. The harmonization, integration of the components, and the increase in complexity is just as observable in traditional method sparkling wines as in still wines. As a golden rule, it can be accepted that the time of disgorging is defining and a champagne can be matured for as long as it lived before being disgorged.
Finally, there’s another factor worth mentioning: larger bottles (from magnums and upwards) generally age slower and reach higher peaks of complexity than normal bottles.