What is a wine’s aging potential, the curve of its evolution and the best time to drink it? Almost all wine lovers, drinkers and collectors ponder that question when looking at the bottles in their wine cellars. When people buy first growth Bordeaux or grand cru Burgundy, they do expect them to last decades. After all, a thirty-year-old bottle makes a strong impression on guests when you serve it at home—or when you share your trophy on Delectable or Instagram.
There are historical reasons for such a correlation: Great regions have established their reputation on the long-lasting nature of their wines, which pleases buyers interested in both tasting and investing. Nevertheless, buying those high-end bottles today and cellaring them for twenty years or more is always bit of a bet. The past is used as an indication of what the future holds, but is it? Recently, as mentioned in a previous post on this blog, some have raised questions about the ageability of more recent vintages of big, pricey red wines, in particular Bordeaux. These doubts have arisen because of warmer vintages (2003, the hottest year in history in France, is often used as an example) and winemaking practices that favor riper grapes with lower acid and softer, plusher tannins, among other factors.
In Pursuit of Balance
Should collectors be scared? Nicolas Vivas, director of research for Tonnellerie Demptos, a Bordeaux-based cooperage, certainly isn’t as worried as his colleagues who have been ringing the alarm bells. “I don’t like to scare people,” he says, adding that the tendency toward warmer vintages is not, in and of itself, a reason wines should be less age worthy than those made decades ago. Oenological choices are the main thing to look at, and in that field, “there are sound principles and common sense.”
There are many factors at work in making great, long-lasting wines, of course, starting with high quality, healthy grapes grown in the best sites, grapes that will show intense, complex organoleptic characteristics, good concentration, and structure. Two key elements do play a central role, however: acidity on the one hand, and tannins and phenolics on the other. Of course, acid and phenolics will be present in different proportions in a particular wine, depending on the vintage.
Having good amounts of both is very much ideal, as demonstrated in particular by one grape: Nebbiolo. The wines of Barolo are some of the most long-lived reds in the world, and they are universally recognized for their high acid and high tannins. With these conditions, they can stand very long barrel aging, which stabilizes them and sustains their ageability. For riserva bottlings, a minimum of three years in oak is required (generally in very large botti, containing thousands of liters).
While most ageworthy vintages usually combine a good amount of acid and phenolics, the lack of this doesn’t automatically mean that the wine will fail at aging. As a previous post on red wine tannins pointed out, substantial tannin structures can compensate for lower acidity, as long chains of well-polymerized tannins, especially when well-bound to anthocyanins, are more stable and provide good protection from oxidation.
Nicolas Vivas, while favoring good levels of acid in red wines destined for aging, points out that practices can be adapted in the cellar to make sure wines with higher pH get to a stable and balanced place at the end of their aging in the cellar. “Generally speaking, with a lower pH, at say, 3.5 or 3.6, you can provide the wines with a longer and more oxidative aging. When the pH is higher, you should work with shorter aging and gentler oxidative practices.”
Even with higher pH and riper grapes, balance remains a key word. A different balance, perhaps, but it’s certainly not an anything goes premox situation. “Premature oxidation,” Vivas points out, “is often linked to imbalance in the grapes. If the wines are overripe, then you’ve pushed things too far. You get richness and opulence, but you may be lacking in other things.”
This is why, unlike some of his colleagues, Vivas doesn’t thinks that 2003 should be used for benchmarking cellar potential, because so many extreme phenomena took place that year. “With the extreme heat, the vines were very stressed and in many cases, photosynthesis simply stopped in the vines. The overall balance of the wine was strongly affected.” Even in other warm years like 2005 or 2009, that kind of problem didn’t manifest itself in the same way.
In 2003, the stress the vines went through, in many places, caused a lot of wines to have a combination of high sugar, low acidity, and limited tannin structure. Without strong, well-defined tannin and phenolic structures to compensate for lower acidity, there isn’t much to protect the wines in the long run.
That is not to say that all wines from 2003 are short-lived and unbalanced. Many recent tastings of 2003 Bordeaux do give the general advice to drink soon, but point to some wines that are still showing a fair deal of freshness and balance. Jancis Robinson recently republished an article she wrote in 2004, where she pointed out the mixed fortunes of 2003 Bordeaux at the higher end. Where vines were able to reach deep for water and viticulturists were careful in trying to moderate the speed of ripening, wines came out better, she pointed out. In any case, saying that the wines are getting on the oxidative side of things, 12 years down the line, is certainly not equivalent to saying they are prematurely oxidized.
I recently tasted a Château Garraud 2003 with the estate’s oenologist, Vincent Duret, and when I remarked about how well the wine was showing, Duret pointed out that the château used a fair amount of very old vines (over 80 years old, in some cases) and that a good part of them were on soils with high clay content that retained water during the hot summer. In this relatively late-ripening site, the old Merlot vines were able to use their deep roots to keep going, and grapes were harvested with better phenolic maturity and acid levels than in most places, something that ties in with the general points about the role these two factors play in a wine’s ageability.
It would have surprised absolutely everyone if 2003 had turned into one of the longest-lived vintages in Bordeaux history. And looking back at previous decades, it’s always a minority of vintages that achieve that capacity for quasi-timelessness. So what should one do for average—or excessively hot—years?
“There’s a point at which wines are made to be drunk,” concludes Nicolas Vivas. It might be better than constantly fretting about how long they can actually keep.