Put another way: old or better? Whichever, the conundrum remains about what is going on in a bottle of wine over the months or years before it is opened and which allows it either to merely taste a bit wrinkly or to have blossomed into something more beautiful and interesting with age.
This topic might appear irrelevant to most winelovers, given the perception that 98% of them open a bottle of wine within 24 hours of purchase. Unusually, this opinion was not corroborated by readers of Winemag during the recent User Survey. Responses revealed only 7% buy and drink so rapidly. In contrast, 14% prefer to age wine and for a significant 37%, ‘it varies’, which presumably suggests wines that will benefit from ageing are accorded at least a few years. Perhaps the topic isn’t so irrelevant.
My curiosity about the age vs maturity question was initially piqued (and not for the first time) at the recent lunch to celebrate the top scorers on Winemag’s Ten-year-old Awards, focusing on 2009s. Only wines scoring 93 or more out of 100 were poured, so there was no chance to taste the two Cap Classiques, but whites, reds, a dessert and fortified were.
The notion that our white wines can last ten years is fairly recent; I seem to remember (I may be wrong) that in the not too distant past, Winemag judged whites at five years, reds at ten. Tokara Director’s Reserve White, a sauvignon-semillon blend, Raats Chenin Blanc and Tokara Reserve Collection Stellenbosch Chardonnay did themselves and their screwcap closures proud; the chenin in particular has years of life ahead and the blend has perhaps achieved the most complexity of any of the top wines. But with each of the three, age has brought something of interest (Bruwer Raats wryly remarked; ‘A much better rating than the wine’s 2* on a long-ago Chenin Challenge!’).
On the subject of the ageing process and white wines, it’s apt to reflect on what Jancis Robinson had to say in her amazingly detailed Vintage Timecharts, published 30 years ago. ‘But if little is known about the precise ageing process of red wines, even less is understood about exactly what happens as a white wine matures (partly because the majority of long-living wines are red, partly because it must be quite different from what happens in red wines with their much higher level of phenolics).’
The reds are a different matter. All, bar the Haut Espoir Shiraz, feature varieties associated with Bordeaux, either in a blend as in Tokara Director’s Reserve Red and La Bri Affinity or in the varietal Remhoogte Merlot and Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon. They are big, ripe wines topping 14% alcohol, two over 15% and only one wine clocks in under 2 grams/litre residual sugar. Now, I know the same can be said of analyses as of statistics – there are analyses, analyses and damn lies – because a wine doesn’t always taste as its analysis suggests, but this quintet are of a stylistic family from the late 2000s in their bold, rich flavours and, frankly, apart from the shiraz, intense dark ruby colour. While the tannins have softened to a degree, there seems to be little flavour development. Should they be drunk now, kept in the hope of improvement, or, as I wondered aloud to the winning winemakers and other guests, would these red wines have tasted as they do now two or three years ago?
Jancis again in Vintage Timecharts: ‘One further frustrating aspect, is that, in a sense one never knows for sure when a wine has reached its peak until that peak has past and the wine begins to show signs of decline.’ Which returns us to: ‘One fundamental reason why so little information is given about what happens to individual wines in bottle because so little is known.’
My sense is that a properly balanced grape will produce a wine that can mature with complexity; fiddling in the cellar may do little more than to bring the wine into balance (sometimes), but over the years it’ll age rather than develop.
While virused vines struggle to ripen, especially late-ripening cabernet, new clean vine material has ripened all too easily, initially catching winemakers unawares with high sugars and consequent high alcohols. Much has changed in the past ten years, including a much better understanding of and attention to viticulture; a significant number of consumers are turning away from the big, ripe, sometimes jammy, oaky reds of yore and enjoying today’s fresher, more flavoursome wines. Yes, there are those who believe the momentum has swung too far in the other direction, that many wines are too light, insubstantial. But with the introduction of cement eggs, clay amphorae even qvevri, plus oak of all shapes and sizes but mainly older, even lighter wines have gained interesting textural dimension.
Can today’s wines mature rather than just age? That’s the $64000 question. Perhaps the best chance will come with 2015, as a generally lauded vintage, but if one takes 10 years as a measuring stick, we’ll have to wait until 2025.
A final thought. It’s infinitely more rewarding to drink a wine on the way up than when it’s on the decline and, as Jancis pointed out in the quote above, one never knows when a wine has reached a peak, until that peak has past.