The Romance of Old Wine
In a 1998 horizontal tasting of Châteauneuf-du-Pape an innocent bystander once asked me, “what’s the point? Why not enjoy the wines individually on several different occasions and experience several times the pleasure?”
I must admit, for a moment I was stumped. If our tasting group had instead tasted the eight Châteauneuf-du-Papes on eight different nights we could have certainly appreciated each wine at least a little bit more. Perhaps on eight different occasions each wine could have been even more special than all eight at once. I have no doubt that all these wines deserved more attention than we were able to give them on that night. But after a little consideration I soon realized that the answer to his question was actually quite simple.
As I’ve said in the past, I’m a firm believer that a great wine can take you somewhere. And on that rainy night in Norwalk Connecticut we were actually quite far from home—we were in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1998, right around harvest time.
What I’ve just described is what I like to call the romance of aged wine. Sure, mature wine can take you somewhere. I recognize and admire its ability to do so. But past the romance I’d like to examine its transformation in the bottle with detachment from nostalgic baggage. And so, for the purposes of this article I’d like to momentarily forget about the romance of old wine and focus purely on its development and lifespan.
In fact, I believe that for the sole purpose of improving overall quality of wine—time actually does very little, and more often than not, it actually causes detriment. Yeah. I said it. An aging wine is a deteriorating wine.
I must admit that because of my age I haven’t had a great deal of time to lay down and mature my own bottles, which I hope only slightly discredits my accountability to write this article. I’m 22 years old. So it’s only through generous friends and acquaintances that I’ve been blessed enough to taste a fair amount of mature wines. And with those experiences I’ve realized one thing—as a wine ages, it is more often that it loses something rather than gains something. Over extended periods of time a wine lets go. It’s color fades, the fruit dulls, and everything that once was, is no more.
Nothing is produced as a wine ages in the bottle, it merely changes form, and I think this is something that us wine lovers often lose sight of. Now, I’m not saying we should all start drinking Beaujolais Nouveau. There are certainly some wines that come on to the market just far too young—but I feel like in general, the wine world overestimates that drinking lifespans of great wines, and they’re the ones missing out.
One of the wines that really made this idea resonate for me was a 1988 Chateau Rayas—a wine that drank marvelously in the moment, paired flawlessly with the meal that accompanied it, and could probably deliver pleasure for several years to come. But in retrospect, the ’88 Rayas was well past its prime. And when I say ‘past its prime’ I don’t mean that it wasn’t drinking well, I think it was, and I derived much pleasure from it. But what I mean is that I think it might have been even more remarkable ten years earlier.
This is where I take qualm with suggested drinking windows. When someone like Robert Parker says that the newest vintage of Chateau Lafite will drink best from 2023-2060, what is he really telling you? Not very much, that’s for sure.
I’m sure that within that timespan there is a smaller period of time that that particular wine will be drinking substantially better than it will be for the rest of the time within the larger window. And I’ve got a feeling it’s not 2050-2060. The end result? We end up holding onto our wine for longer, and enjoying it less. That’s poor investing.
I agree that a small part of my argument has to do with circumstance and personal taste. Sure, you might enjoy you’re Chateau Haut-Brion at 25 years of maturity, while I more enjoy it at 10 years of maturity—and it might also have to do with factors like wine service, temperature, and food pairing. But when push comes to shove, I think you’ll find that of-age wines out perform ancient ones, and anyone who says differently is probably just caught up in the ‘romance’.
To approach this from a different angle it might be valuable to examine what makes an ancient wine great. I’ve spent a lot of time around other wine lovers and tasted a lot of old wine. And in that time I’ve tasted a fair amount of what other people would call ‘spectacular’ bottles. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed (even loved them) too—but the one thing that every single one of those ‘spectacular’ bottles has in common is that it was drinking ‘fresh, vibrant, and as if it were 10-15 years younger’.
Come on now. Do you realize what you just did there? You held a bottle of wine for a substantial fraction of your lifetime so it could ideally taste young (and you incurred the risk of flaw, breakage, and theft along the way). Am I missing something here, or are you just lighting candles and setting the table for a romantic dinner?
The last thing that pisses me off about old wine is something that I couldn’t fully put my finger on until just recently. I was even hesitant to include it in this commentary for fear of sounding like an ungrateful bitch but I think it’s pretty important so I’ve decided to say it anyway: as a wine ages it departs from what it was originally.
Over the holidays I had the chance—a chance that I am so incredibly grateful for—to taste two different specimens of 1964 Cheval Blanc. Both bottles were sound, had been stored well (to the best of my knowledge), and were opened at the same time, under identical circumstances. And yet they were two completely different wines.
Cheval Blanc 1964 A was austere, mineral driven and earthy with hints of mushroom, cedar, and spice. Cheval 1964 B was rich, full of ripe red fruit with a background of leather, dry earth, and roasted herbs. This degree of bottle variation isn’t something that occurs at the chateau during the winemaking process but something that happens over time as each wine ages. As time goes on each bottle deviates from the original ‘chateau wine’ so that 40 or 50 years later, there is no such thing as ‘1964 Cheval Blanc’ but only variations and fragments of its original spirit. I think this has to do with a lot of things including small variations in importing, storage, and every part of the overall journey—but the greatest, perhaps, is cork variation. As we all know, not only are corks imperfect but the composition of each and every one is in fact quite different. Wines breathe through corks and when two wines breath through two different corks for 40 years—well they end up becoming two different wines. Even identical twins, two offspring with the same DNA grow up to be two different people—well it’s the same story with wine. Ultimately, ‘it could be purple or it could be pink’, ‘pending how you age that shit.’
So sure, hold onto your over-age wines and drink them on special occasions—I know I will—but do so with the full understanding that the value is more sentimental than quality-minded. Logically speaking, you’re much better off going out and buying a wine that is ‘drinking well’ rather than trying to incubate it yourself. Wines die. But don’t be too disappointed because 1936 Beaucastel makes a fine doorstop.