Over the past 25 years in California we’ve seen loads of new wineries release their inaugural vintages at prices I used to pay for a serviceable used car. If the market will bear it, more power to them, but I’m always surprised that wines with no track record for aging can be moved at premium prices–because, even when a young wine seems to have all the right stuff, there’s no guarantee it will develop well over time. And a lot of wines that aren’t showy young turn out to age beautifully. Unfortunately, we don’t know that much about what allows one wine to grow into something beautiful while another goes dull or awkward or just plain weird. We talk about balance, concentration, alcohol, ripeness, tannin, acidity, and a host of other characteristics as indicative of a wine’s aging potential, but exceptions abound. The child may be father to the man, but you still can’t predict the adult by looking at the baby (though a winery’s track record remains the best guide).
One of the greatest Cabernets I’ve had was the ’77 from a joint in Santa Clara County called Sherrill Cellars. It had a very simple label, and the capsule was of melted white candle wax. It looked like something your neighbor did in his basement. But the wine was superb, and was drinking perfectly 20+ years after the vintage. I put it into some tastings with pricier Cabs of the era, and it more than held its own. But when I went through my old books to find out how the winery was regarded at the time, I found that Anthony Dias Blue had not given any of their wines more than two stars (though, in fairness, he didn’t rate the ’77), with the ’79 Cab described as “tart, fruity, decent” and the Zin as “thin, simple, tart.” As far as I can tell, nobody ever thought Sherrill Cellars was making anything great, and they were gone after only a few years. On the other hand there’s Penfold’s Grange Hermitage, the long-acknowledged king of Australia. I know that a lot of people love it but, to me, the American oak never integrates with the fruit, and old examples always have an unpleasant overlay of dill weed—which turns out to be just as well, since I can’t afford the stuff anyway. But it does make me wonder why the substantial American oak in Paul Draper’s great Ridge wines melts so beautifully into the other components as the years pass, while the oak in Grange can’t stop shouting its own name.
There are so many growing and winemaking decisions that affect the aging characteristics of a particular wine that it’s easy for us to just throw up our hands and say the truth is unknowable. Grape type, clone, location, vine age and density, terroir, vintage, yields, fertilizers, pruning and harvesting practices—those are just a fraction of the things that affect the finished wine before the winemaker even gets his hands on it and makes a hundred more decisions big and small. It’s a big, crazy ball of yarn, and it’s hard to pull out one skein without others coming with it. Isolating a single variable, or a set of variables, among so many, is pushing a rock up a mountain. That said, I don’t think it’s impossible to start shedding some light on the subject.
There are individual vineyards that provide grapes to a dozen or more wineries, which removes some of the trickiest variables (though individual rows within the vineyard may be treated differently or be of different ages). I once bought a set of half a dozen Pinot Noirs from the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard, each from a different producer in the same vintage. Tracking the aging curve of such a set and looking at variations in how the wines were made would inevitably lead to the creation of some hypotheses that could then be tested. Following the aging curve of several wines from the same producer, grape, and vintage would likewise result in ideas that could be pursued. Obviously, doing a scientifically valid job of exploring any little part of this subject would be a significant job, and it would likely take us a long time before we’d be able to say anything conclusive. But if it had been begun 50 years ago, we’d already know a lot more about how a given wine is likely to develop than we do now. I’d love to see some of our wealthier publications, professional organizations, universities, and oenology grad students start tackling these issues. Yeah, it would be a big task. But there would be a lot of good drinking along the way.
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