Wine: What to drink and when
If you are old enough, you may remember the television commercials for Paul Masson wines in the late 1970s featuring the dramatic actor/director Orson Welles. “It took Beethoven four years to write that symphony,” Welles intoned deeply, as a vinyl disk rotated on a turntable behind him. He went on to say that the Paul Masson label made wines with that kind of care and talent before ending with a quote from the long-dead Masson, “We will sell no wine before its time.”
At the time, the line was legendary and the commercial was oft-parodied. But the point was that “waiting” for a wine to mature paid off in the enjoyment of said wine. Even today that concept is still pervasive with some about wine. The assumption is age is the key to a great wine.
Well, some wines do improve with age and “laying them down,” or storing them, can improve their character and taste. But the best time to drink a wine varies greatly depending upon the color, the grape and the way a wine is made. In fact, today the vast, vast majority of wines are perfectly fine to drink once they make it into your hands.
NOW OR LATER?
Nearly all white wines and rosé wines are best consumed when young, fresh and full of life from a recent vintage. Wines like sauvignon blanc, albariño, pinot grigio or un-oaked and lighter style Chardonnay are good to go upon release. When a winery bottles and sells those wines, the expectation is that they are ready for drinking when you take them off the shelf in the store.
There are, of course, other white wines, think more expensive, more complex, white Burgundies for example, that have spent time aging in oak that can benefit from some bottle aging and may well improve as the years drift by. Late harvest dessert wines like Sauternes also take on new flavors and textures as they age. But for the most part, whites are made for the now.
But many red wines benefit from time spent aging in the bottle after release and allowing them to reach full maturity.
Red wines are red because of the color induced as they spend time on the skins and stems of the grapes. The juice from grapes runs clear when pressed and remain so until they take on color during the maceration process. These skins and stems of the grapes also infuse the wine with tannins and phenolics, the chemical compounds that affect the way a wine tastes and feels in the mouth. And red wines are generally aged in oak barrels before bottling, giving them even more, though different, phenolics.
As a result, aging of red wines, letting the wines stay in the bottle for years, sometimes even decades, gives the tannins time to soften and the phenolics time to change the flavor profiles of wines. This is especially true of wines that were carefully crafted, first in the vineyard, then in the winery as they were made.
As quality red wines age they mellow in mouth feel and color, turning from purple or red to a more orange-ish tint. The flavors become better balanced, the tannins more supple, and there is a point where the wines can reach perfection. Of course, that is the hard part. Age too long and a wine can lose its mojo and begin to become flavorless and, well, worthless.
It is an inexact science, but I have included a sample vintage time chart (see sidebar) for aging time on some prominent red grapes. British wine expert Jancis Robinson once wrote a book, “Vintage Time Charts,” which established some rules of thumb. But even the esteemed Ms. Robinson would surely say that these are only generalities and that maker, vintage, site, etc., all could be variables that would affect the time needed to age a wine.
Of course, the most important part of aging a wine is making sure that it has the conditions for the entire aging period to achieve greatness. Taking a great Bordeaux and standing it in your kitchen, subject to bright light, temperature variations and, well, the real world will not allow it to age properly.
No, if you are going to get the most out of the time and money you are investing in aging wine it is imperative that you have a cellar or storage facility that will allow the wine to mature under the most benign conditions for the entire length of the aging period.
Regardless, the real rule is the one you apply. Drink or hold, the choice is yours.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.