Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Here’s one of the biggest myths about wine: It gets better if you age it. While some wines (like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “CASK 23” Cabernet Sauvignon) unquestionably do evolve in compelling and fascinating ways over time, there is actually no basis to the presumption that wine de facto gets better the longer you keep it. Sadly, I know this all too well from experience.
Throughout my twenties, I closeted away–literally (bottles of wine competed with shoes in my closets) a score of gift bottles of Champagne on the theory that such wonderful wines should not be “wasted” on a single woman. I was waiting until I got married to drink them, an idea that, as every woman reading this and smiling to herself knows, made entire sense to me–then. One day, some twelve or so years later and still unmarried, I decided to splurge and open one of the bottles I’d been saving to share with Mr. Right. It tasted like a cross between rancid cooking sherry and stale bread. Panicked, I opened another bottle, then another, then another. That night hundreds of dollars worth of worthless wine got poured down the drain.
There were, of course, several lessons provided by that fiasco, including a few about men and marriage. But the one that matters most is the simple yet insidious fallacy that all wines are better with time. A decade of wine research later, I now know it’s just simply not true. In fact, most of the wines in the world are meant to be aged no longer than the time it takes you to bring them home from the store. This includes almost all white wines, rosés, and sparkling wines, as well many moderately priced reds.
In fact, it often comes as a surprise to wine lovers to learn that for most of history, young wines were more treasured (and cost more) than older wines. Both the Greeks and the Romans, for example, paid a premium for wines that were fresh and full of fruit. The idea makes sense since, for most of history, aged wine was virtually synonymous with wine that was oxidized, tired, or had turned to vinegar. It was only after wine began to be routinely packaged in glass bottles (in the 1800s), that the concept of intentionally aging wine (to the wine’s benefit) came to pass.
You notice I’ve suggested that certain wines aren’t meant to be aged, meaning that aging them is not necessary to their enjoyment. That, however, is different from whether or not such wines can be aged. Let’s take Merlot. You can certainly keep a good bottle of Merlot around for several years before you drink it. Whether or not it will actually taste “better,” however, is thoroughly subjective.
As wines age they lose what is known as their fresh forward fruit character. If what you loved about that Merlot was its deliciously round ripe cherry and plum flavors, then aging the wine would make little sense since the longer you kept it, the more you’d sacrifice that cherry/plumminess.
In place of expressive fruitiness, an aged wine takes on more subtle flavors that often defy description. That’s because such flavors are the result of various molecules combining and coalescing with each other in unpredictable ways. Sometimes these aged flavors are gorgeous and refined. But, frankly, sometimes the wine just ends up tasting like a shadow of its former self.
Is there any way to know which path a wine will take? Not definitively. Practiced wine drinkers who have tasted widely and have tasted wines at multiple ages may have a sense, an inkling, of what a wine might taste like in a few years’ time. But even for the most experienced palates, it’s still only an educated guess. What makes a wine develop the exact flavors that it does over time remains largely a mystery. No computer can predict it, and no human being can either. (So beware those absurd wine critic tasting notes that say “Drink in 2011.”)
All of this said, it’s well agreed on that certain types of wine are more likely to taste better after they’ve been aged than are other types. What do these wines possess that helps them age well? Winemakers have isolated three key factors: sugar, acid, and tannin. Each of these in its own way acts as a preservative.
Sugar is the easiest to understand. Think of that jar of honey you’ve had in the cabinet for ten years and it still tastes fine. Similarly, sweet dessert wines such as Sauternes can be aged for years, even decades. Acidity also helps a wine age. Very high acid wines such as the top German Rieslings can taste miraculously fresh even when they are ten or more years old. Tannin, a compound found in grape skins and seeds, is a wonderful preservative, so wines that are high in tannin are usually built to last.
Which wines are most high in tannin? Well first off, as many wine drinkers know, red wines have more tannin than white wines since red grapes are fermented with their tannin-laced skins. But not all red grape varieties are equal in the amount of tannin they possess. Some grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon are genetically high in tannin; others, such as Gamay (the grape that makes Beaujolais) are low in tannin. This is why Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars top Cabernet Sauvignons are often found aging away in a wine lover’s cellar.
But it’s not just the amount of tannin that’s critical–it’s also the character of the tannin and how that tannin fits in the overall balance of the wine. For example, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a lot of aggressive, harsh tannin (the kind of Cabernet that shrink-wraps your mouth) probably won’t age gracefully despite the tannin it possesses. In, say, twenty years, it will probably taste like an out-of-balance, harsh and raspy old wine.
On the other hand when the character of the tannin is relatively supple–that is, when the tannin feels fine-grained rather than harsh and scratchy–then the wine may well evolve into something sumptuously nuanced and richly textured.
And finally when it comes to aging, perhaps the most amazing aspect of all (and one that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has played a demonstrative role in) is this: certain wines can be both extraordinary when they are young, as well as after they’ve aged for decades. While it would seem mutually exclusive for a wine to be in top-notch form now and top notch many years from now, empirical evidence suggests that some wines have an almost magical capacity to manifest themselves in precisely this fashion. Those most likely to are generally powerful but elegant Cabernet Sauvignons from well-drained, warm (but not hot) areas such as the Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley. With these wines, the grapes get lusciously full of sugar and ripe tannin which results in a full bodied, well structured, ripe, fruity tasting wine (delicious now). At the same time, since Cabernet Sauvignon is indeed high in tannin, the wine is capable of aging for long periods (delicious later).
No better evidence of this exists than last year’s reenactment of the famous 1976 Paris Tasting. The Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 was the favorite red thirty years ago, leading flustered French critics to concede that California wines were indeed hedonistic when young. But with time? Everyone in the world assumed that once aged, Bordeaux wines would take the stage. This time, with three decades of cellaring behind it, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars came in second, just behind Ridge but in front of three thirty year-old Bordeaux: Château Léoville Las Cases, Château Montrose, and Château Mouton Rothschild.
In the end, the intricacies of aging are only beginning to be fathomed, and predicting how a wine might age is anything but easy. This, however, should not be disillusioning. In fact, just the opposite. The unpredictability of wine makes it all the more compelling. Never truly knowing what to expect is part of the attraction, part of the allure. And part of the pleasant justification for buying more than one bottle at a time.