“This wine will develop and be at its best in 5 to 10 years.”
How many times have you read that – or something similar – from a wine dweeb like me in a review of a wine? But what does it actually mean…and, most importantly, what can you expect a wine to taste like when it “develops”?
The latter is a great question, and one that came home to me a few years after I got into wine. I was at a Burgundy tasting put on by a wine club. It was of ‘69 and ’70 reds – both great vintages – and the wines were from good producers. But as the tasting proceeded, I could sense…unease in the crowd, many who were also relatively new to wine and used to those from California.
It all came to a head during the Q&A, in the very first question. A very well dressed gentlemen stood up and, in not so many words, said “these wines are dried out; where’s the fruit?” The nodding heads and applause showed many people in the audience agreed with him (as did I). But I felt badly for the “experts” up on the stage as they stammered and stuttered, trying to explain what old wine tasted like.
So what does it taste like? Well, it depends on the wine (more on that in a second). But one thing, in general – the fresh fruit aromas and tastes go away. And that can be a shock to most people – including myself – who love that fruit forward style of wine. The fruit becomes more delicate, dried out a bit, with more secondary characteristics like herbs, smoke, and wood.
And the tannins — those astringent, mouth-puckering things that give the sensation of tea that has been left sitting too long — also fade over time and soften, making the wine softer and easier to drink.
But what the wine actually tastes like differs from wine to wine. Bordeaux and Burgundy, for example, definitely get woodier, especially Bordeaux. Softer, yes, silkier, yes, but you have to like wood (oak, cedar, etc.) to like older versions of these wines.
Older Grenache-based Rhones (like Chateauneuf du Pape) are earthier, with wonderful Provencal herbs (called garrigue) and dried – but not dried out – fruits. Syrah based wines from the same part of France are have more pepper, smoke and licorice to them.
Barolo and Barbaresco from Italy can take on a wonderful port-like richness over time – almost overripe fruit and herbs – I love those wines at 15 years old!
And California Cabernets – compared to their mostly Cabernet-based Bordeaux cousins – retain more of their fruit for a much longer time. I have had ten and even 15 year old Cali Cabs that were stunningly fresh!
But the ultimate question, of course, is do these older wines taste any better?
Well, first off, it’s important to emphasize that the examples above represent less than 5 percent of all wines. The other 95% should be drunk in their first year or two of life for their freshness; they won’t get any better, instead getting dried out.
Also, I am talking about red wines here. Aside from some German and Alsace wines, very few whites get better with age.
But those that can age – do they taste better?
Well, I think the answer is, instead, that they taste different – and sometimes radically different. They can definitely be an acquired taste, and I completely understand why many people don’ t like old red wine.
My advice is therefore to buy an older wine and try it first before investing in a bunch of younger wines that you are going to save for later. Although more expensive, you can often find older bottles to try, and they will give you a sense of what age tastes like.
If you like that style, then by all means buy some and put them in your cellar (although buy more than one, so you can check out the development over time). But if you don’t – that’s all right too! Enjoy the fruit of a younger wine, as it is just as legitimate an experience as an older wine.