Getting It Wrong: What We Don’t Know About Aging Wine (Part 1)
We know so much less than we think we do.
And no subset of wine knowledge is more suspect than what we think we know about how and why wines develop over time. This is the first of several posts I’ll be contributing about the myths and mysteries of wine aging, because it turns out that documenting our collective ignorance could fill just as many books as have been published documenting our supposed knowledge.
Twenty-five years ago, when I first fell in love with Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CdP), I started prowling around used book stores, looking for old wine texts that would tell me about the history of the region and the great CdPs from the first two-thirds of the 20th century. But over and over again, I’d find wine encyclopedias from the 50s and 60s—books typically running to 500 pages or more—that devoted only a couple inches of type to the Southern Rhone Valley. The typical description of Chateauneuf would be something like, “These simple, artisanal wines can be robust and pleasant, but they are not for keeping.” And, just like that, the author would cavalierly wave off one of the world’s grandest wine regions. It got to be sort of a game for me, trying to find the most dismissive descriptions of Grenache’s greatest expression.
As for the information about how CdPs aged, I just didn’t believe it. Yeah, a lot of the examples in the U.S. market at that time were negociant concoctions and probably were made for drinking before sundown, but there were also at least a handful of classic producers whose wines were represented here. It seemed impossible to me that all those bottlings could all be dead only a couple of decades later. So I spent a year combing the auction lists, bidding on any cheap 50s and 60s Chateauneuf’s I saw. It became obvious in a hurry that I was pretty much alone in searching for these wines, because I won almost all of them for their opening-bid prices.
As it turned out, a lot of the bottles were terrific. A few were indeed dead, but what with the low fills, loose corks, and signs of heat damage that some of them suffered from, it was apparent that other, more fit bottles of the same wines might still be in good form. I learned a lot about Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the process, and also learned not to trust old books about how wines age. Still, I assumed that the mistakes of the past had mostly been rectified, and figured the new wine books I was buying were better researched than those musty old ones with their descriptions of Pinot Chardonnay and American Burgundy.
I was wrong, and often came across evidence to that effect, but I didn’t really put it together for a while. Then, a couple years ago I attended a tasting of wines from Condrieu. It’s another Rhone region I’ve always loved, and I’d never had any reason to disbelieve the opinion nearly universal among wine writers that Condrieu needs to be drunk within a couple years of the vintage, because it doesn’t last. But this tasting included several 80s- and 90s-era bottles, and they were great—not just holding on, or good considering their age, but great. We drank and rated them blind, and it was shocking to see how old some were when the bottles were unveiled. The wine that won the night was past its 15th birthday.
I’ve come across lots of other examples (One favorite: “Cornas should be drunk within nine years of the vintage.” Nine? That’s weirdly specific, and wildly conservative.). They continue to be disseminated in magazines, books, conversations, and all across the Internet. One cause, I think, is that wine is such a massive subject that even the most experienced, best informed people in the world can understand only a fraction of it. So, when an acknowledged expert makes a declaration, it sometimes gets repeated and reprinted, but not revisited. Over time, even nonsense can begin to sound like gospel through sheer repetition.
A lot of published information about wine is accurate and useful, but the batting average on aging advice is woefully low. It’s a tricky sub-category of an already tricky field. I don’t claim to have any great knowledge of it myself, but at least I’ve learned to be skeptical of what I read, which has resulted in some happy experiments at home. There are lots of bits of conventional wisdom that aren’t actually so wise; it’s nice to run across some that can be exposed by nothing more than an old Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a corkscrew.
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