01 May Truth in Wine: Does Wine Get Better With Age?
I was sitting in a fabulous sea-side Tel Aviv restaurant the other day where a friend is the wine buyer. He asked me, “Jeff, can you taste this 1996 Krug Champagne that I just opened?” (Krug is one of the greatest names in bubbly, renowned for being ageworthy.)
“Twist my arm,” I joked. Rarely do I get to taste 22-year-old Krug, which was priced at 3000 shekels (about $800) on the wine list.
It was as good as I imagined it would be. The rich, nutty aroma that comes with age in older Champagnes was followed up by a creamy but still fresh texture in the mouth. The bubbles were quite small, however. This is what happens to Champagne over time as the carbon dioxide gas (which creates the bubbles) dissipates. It’s perfectly normal, as long as some effervescence remains. I personally prefer smaller bubbles anyway. Big bubbles are distracting.
“Wow. The wine’s fantastic,” I said. “Why did you open this bottle without a buyer on the floor?”
“Because I needed to see exactly what state it was in,” he responded. “A lot of my customers don’t understand what aged, high-end bubbly tastes like. They think it’s flat if the bubbles are too small. And they’re not used to the nuttiness. I’ve got a case in the cellar that I want to sell, but I need to be able to describe it effectively to my customers before they buy it.”
My friend was right to open that bottle. There is absolutely no way to know what your aged wines are going to taste like unless you taste them. It doesn’t matter if you know the winery well or not, because every bottle ages somewhat differently depending on where it was stored from the moment it was bottled until the moment you pop the cork.
We know that some varietals are more ageworthy than others. Cabernet Sauvignon (or Bordeaux) for example, typically ages longer than, say, Zinfandel. But to assume that a wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, will “improve” with age is a very imperfect assumption.
Our 2003 Covenant Cabernet is currently tasting quite good, although in my opinion it’s not going to get much better with time. The 2004 vintage is probably much more long-lived. It’s more vibrant and still tightly wound. Why? I don’t know. Same vineyard, both good vintages, and the same winemaking protocols. The 2005 Covenant is definitely a bit past its prime. It’s still good, but not nearly as long-lived as the 2003 and 2004. Maybe this is because yields were higher in 2005. I don’t know for sure.
White wines can age well, too. Our Covenant Lavan Chardonnay, made in a Burgundian style with lees aging in barrel for 16 to 18 months, is showing beautifully after 10 years. (Lees, or spent yeast that line the bottom of a barrel, are anti-oxidants.) The 2008 Lavan is still nothing less than gorgeous—though I don’t know how long it will remain this way. Other whites that we make, such as Mensch Roussanne and RED C Sauvignon Blanc, will not last so long in bottle. These are wines that are made to be drunk younger and fresher. Rosé is another candidate for early consumption. Rarely is it meant to age more than a year or so.
Still, when someone asks me, “When can I drink the Covenant Cabernet I bought last year?” I always say, “How about tonight?” When I release a wine for consumption, it already tastes good. With age, it will surely change. Perhaps the tannins will soften—but maybe not so much. The flavors may become less fruity and more savory, but that doesn’t mean the wine will be better. It will just be different. And you might prefer the fruitier version over the more savory version.
Ultimately, even though I make these wines, I don’t really know exactly how they will evolve in the bottle. Or at what rate. And as I said earlier, storage conditions are critical. If they are too hot, or too dry, the wines will age faster and perhaps not so well. Too cold, and the wines age very slowly. If you’ve got a lot of time wait…no problem!
What about those aging recommendations written by wine writers? To a certain degree, they can be helpful if the writer knows the winery well and has experience tasting its wines at different stages of their evolution. But it’s still guesswork. I’ve often seen aging potential, in my opinion, grossly misjudged by professionals. But again, no one knows for sure until the wine is tasted.
With so many variables and different wines to choose from, how do we know the best time to open a bottle? If you buy by the case, you can taste various bottles over time and see how the wine changes. When you like it best, that’s the time to finish off the case! But if you’ve got one wine that you are saving for a special occasion, that’s a bit like Russian roulette. More great wine has gone bad sitting too long in wine cellars than you can imagine.
Good wine tastes good when it’s young and (only maybe) when it’s old. There’s no guarantee. So the odds are better if you open it tonight rather than three years from now! And if you don’t have a reasonably cool, stable environment for storing your wine, don’t store it for long. Drink it sooner than later.
Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist. Jeff is available for select speaking engagements. To inquire about a possible speaking appearance, please contact Jodie Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.