I had a customer come in the other day looking for a bottle of Ridge Monte Bello. The thing is, he didn’t just want any old bottle. He was specifically looking for the 1995 vintage.
“1995?” I sputtered. “Yeah, you won’t find anything that old in our store. You’d be hard pressed to find it anywhere.”
The customer seemed confused. “A wine from 1995 is old?”
In the end, the whole endeavor was pointless, as we didn’t even have a current vintage of the Monte Bello available, but it illustrates a curious and commonly held misconception: that wine lasts forever. Much like the concept of “love at first sight” and astrology, these notions are deeply ingrained in culture, and difficult to root out.
I can tell you definitively, though: wine is not eternal.
Now, that’s not to say that some wines isn’t age worthy, but even a first growth Bordeaux will peak at some point, after which it will continue to become less and less impressive until eventually it just turns nasty (the movie Sideways has a much more eloquent soliloquy on the subject, if you’re interested).
However, while there are some wines out there that are sturdy enough to develop and improve over decades of cellaring, most wines are not designed with that kind of forward planning in mind and are intended to be drunk within the first year (or twenty minutes) after purchase. As a consumer, you should heed this intention and drink your wine rather than horde it in a box in the closet.
So what distinguishes a “Class One Immediate Sipper” from a “Do Not Open Until Your Second Marriage?” Well… a lot of things.
It really comes down to the character of the wine. Tannic acid, the distinctive chemical that gives red wine it’s characteristic astringency, is a natural preservative and is the main thing to look for in a wine when assessing it’s ageability. Over time, the tannins will clump together and precipitate out of the wine, forming a silty layer of sediment at the bottom of the bottle (which should be separated from the wine if you ever decide to actually drink your precious immortal). If the wine isn’t tannic enough, it won’t last long. That’s why Cabernet and Merlot are the classics when it comes to aging: lots of tannins gives the wine something to chew on during it’s long incarceration within the bottle.
Acidity can give wine some longevity too, as evidenced by the fine Burgundies you might stumble onto in some rich guy’s wine cellar. As red Burgundies are made from Pinot Noir, and as Pinot Noir is severely lacking in the tannin department, without the natural acidity in the wine, there simply wouldn’t be anything to fend off the natural processes of oxidation and decomposition. This is also about the only thing whites have going for them when it comes to aging.
And then some wines, like the great Italian long-termer Barolo, have tons of acidity AND tannins, which make them not only well suited to long periods of aging, but actually rather dependent on it. Unless you like your wine tart and bitter, that is.
Of course, the most important factor to getting a wine to outlive you are the conditions in which you store it. The bottle should be on its side to keep the cork from drying out, in the dark, in a cool, temperature controlled environment. Temperature variation is the stake that time tries to drive through the heart of every great wine: if the bottle is allowed to go from warm to cold and vice-versa too rapidly, it can devastate the contents, especially in wines that have already undergone a good amount of aging. It’s aesthetically pleasing to think of wine as eternal, but much like human beings, they get more fussy and frail over time.
Which brings me back to that customer looking for the ’95 Ridge Monte Bello: even if we’d had a bottle of it lying around on the shelf somewhere, the chances of that bottle still being good would have been slim. Trying to purchase a nigh on 20 year old bottle in a retail store, where the bottles are stored upright in the open air, is a recipe for disappointment. Even if the cork hadn’t dried out and exposed the wine to oxygen, our hypothetical ’95 Monte Bello would have been well past its prime, having likely died of old age long before this customer decided he just had to have the ’95 vintage, specifically.
Not that spoiled wine is necessarily the deterrent one would think: the psychological power of just knowing a bottle is old, combined with the assumption that all wine gets better the older it is, is quite powerful on its own.
I was at a party once where the host, after learning of my interest in wine, presented me with a bottle from his “collection.”
“This is good stuff,” he said, handing the bottle to me. “Been aging for years.”
It had indeed: the bottle was a $10 Merlot from the year 2000. The host watched in prideful anticipation as I opened the bottle and poured the first glass.
I sniffed the wine and recoiled as gracefully as I could. The wine was completely oxidized, and sat thick and brown in the glass. It smelled like stewed raisins and potting soil.
“Um, I’m sorry…” I murmured diplomatically to the guests holding their glasses out for a taste “but I believe this bottle is corked. Maybe you’d like to try something else?”
I’m glad I spoke softly because even what little of what had been audible inspired a grim reaction in my host, and the others standing around me. I remember all the sound draining out of the room as they stared at me, as if to say “I don’t think you understand, Mr. Wine Expert. This bottle is OLD.”
Sensing no polite way out, I poured a glass for the first guest and stood back as she took a sip, swallowed, and looked up suddenly, her eyes wide.
“Wow, that’s really good.”
The wine was a huge hit at the party. I had to surreptitiously dump my own glass down the toilet during a staged bathroom visit. The experience demonstrated, yet again, the venerable old adage of “mind over matter,” and the overall subjectivity of taste. If people think old wine is supposed to be good, and they don’t really know what an old wine is supposed to taste like, their brain will overwhelm their senses and tell them that they enjoy it, whether it’s good or not.
Or who knows, maybe they really did like the way it tasted. Spoiled wine won’t make you sick, and when you get down to it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the taste of dirt and raisins. It’s just not a common preference is all. But then again, aged wine isn’t all that common either. Maybe in the absence of context, nothing is precluded from enjoyment. That could be my big failing: if I hadn’t known any better, maybe I would have been able to join in and enjoy the wine too…