I have an age problem. First of all, 38 years of tasting young wines has conditioned me to their charms – their energy, their freshness. Second, there’s little point in my buying wines that will take 20 years to mature. I might be dead by then.
Nevertheless, the question that I ask, as I try to listen to a wine, is: how will it age? Ageability is a key element in judging the quality of a wine, even though many of us don’t age our wines for very long, if at all.
Winemakers have helped us with this. They have long abandoned the idea that wine might not – even should not, as a badge of honour – be appealing in youth. For years now they’ve been tweaking their viticulture and winemaking to produce wines that can be drunk young, even immediately. (Climate change has helped here, a lot: riper tannins, and tartaric acid rather than malic make for a friendlier youth.)
It wasn’t always the case. The English used to regard the French as little better than barbarians for drinking even great red Bordeaux within a few years, when it’s still tight and lean. The English taste was traditionally for older wine – old claret, old Burgundy, old Champagne. Now? The differences are less stark. Bordeaux, most Brits would agree, still needs age, and indeed it does go through a closed phase after bottling during which it can be quite hard work. But toughness in youth used to be seen not just as inevitable but as a positive sign of quality: one of the reasons the British trade was initially wary of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage was that the wines seemed too soft, too young. Wines needed some scaffolding to age, and ageing was good.
When New World reds appeared, with their immediate lushness, we lapped them up. But it was only when we saw that they could age that we took them seriously. It’s as if instant pleasure must be balanced by future potential. Ageability is a token of quality, and we want to put it in our back pockets when we buy a wine, even if we’re not going to use it. Jean-Luc Colombo calls it a ‘lettre de noblesse’ that proves the terroir is good. When he arrived in Cornas, which had little reputation then, he had to prove that his vineyards, just like the more famous ones of Hermitage, could confer that lettre de noblesse on his wines.
That lettre de noblesse can only come from the terroir. Winemakers often try to add oak for greater ageability, often on wines which are nicer without either age or oak. A wine doesn’t need that lettre de noblesse to be enjoyable. But to be regarded as serious, it does.
There is an element of magic in wine ageing. We know, when we buy a top Riesling from a great German vineyard, that it could probably outlive us. We buy this aura of glamour with the wine, an extra dimension of time that shimmers, tantalisingly, always out of reach.
It’s difficult to know which is the more seductive, the aura of the past or the aura of the yet-to-come. Drinking a wine while it’s still improving can be more exciting than drinking it at its peak; perversely, there can be a faint sense of anti-climax about a wine which is unlikely to improve further. It’s a bit like climbing a high and steep hill: you exclaim over each new view as you climb, but when you get to the top there’s not always that much difference.
And the aura of the past? The oldest wine I have ever tasted was a Madeira made when Marie Antoinette was on the throne of France, still unaware of her fate. It was a direct link back to a distant past – and yet not completely, because in the 1770s the wine would not have tasted as it did when I drank it. (No, I didn’t spit it out.) So the wine I drank is not the wine somebody of that time might have known.
The wine you might lay down today is not the wine that it will be, should a bottle survive into the far future to be opened and wondered at. And somehow that changes the magic. The Greek temples we see today are not what they saw then, not least because then they were painted in bright colours. The early music movement has brought a lot of 18thcentury music closer to us in terms of historical accuracy. But to hear Alfred, Lord Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade – himself! His very own voice! is to be surprised by the, well, dreariness of it. Sometimes the past benefits from the gloss of our imagination.
And the future? The knowledge that the wine in front of us could go on improving for another 50 years, except that we’re going to drink it and bring it to a full stop – why does that matter?
Part of the magic of ageability is that when we open a bottle we get a snapshot of that wine at that moment. It was different last year, when we didn’t drink it; it would have been different next year, had we not drunk it. Wine is a performance art.
Winemakers know this. When they can (which means when they can afford to, and when the market offers the opportunity) they will age their wine in the cellar and release it when it’s ready. Of course they want us to understand the greater complexity and harmony that comes with that extra age. They know that by drinking their wines soon after release we’re not gaining a full understanding of them.
As a reverse example, think of reading Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky as a 16-year-old. You feel quite good carrying the books around – with the titles on show, in case anyone is looking. You may be impressed by what you’re reading. But how much of it do you understand? Compared to how much you understand if you read them again 30 years later? That is what maturity does. More complexity, more harmony, more depth. Even if you’re the one that’s doing the maturing. The reader, or the drinker, doing the maturing is like the old joke about the father who, when the boy is 15, is extraordinarily stupid. But by the time the boy turns 30, he is amazed at how much his father has learnt.
Denis Dubordieu used to reckon that the ability to age for at least ten years was the sine qua non for a serious wine. But the more wildly expensive Provençal rosés claim a lettre de noblesse if they can age for four or five years. Champagne ages so well that we have to be reminded of it by the release of late-disgorged wines: Gosset’s 12 Ans de Cave is the latest in a distinguished line-up, and is a gloriously tense balance of shortbread, honey, apricots, herbs and lemon. Good Port is assumed to be drinkable only after decades, whereupon we exclaim over how fresh it is. And if you feel like doing some exclaiming, you could try Kopke’s brace of 1940 Colheitas: a peach-and-rosemary white Port (labelled Day) and an earth-and-preserved-lemon Tawny, labelled Night. The colours of the two are not very different, which is another thing about wine and time: eventually all wines end up in much the same place. Sweet wines dry out. Tannins fall out. Whites darken. Reds lighten. It’s like the vanishing point of perspective. And somewhere along those converging lines we opt to open the bottle, putting ourselves between what was and what might have been.
Photo by Rod Long