Commentary

Wine: Eternal In Our Minds, Not On Our Shelves

old-crusty-wine-bottle

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.

Precious tannin...

Precious tannin…

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.

Beck

Okay, it was Beck(‘s assistant). Beck was the one who wanted a ’95 Monte Bello. It’s apparently his “favorite.”

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…

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72 thoughts on “Wine: Eternal In Our Minds, Not On Our Shelves

  1. Not a wine drinker. One glass makes me sleepy. But I’m always interested in learning something new and your description of those misguided wine buffs gave me a chuckle. (ps, and I’m sure to be exposing my ignorance here, but I never get why people enjoy chugging down white wine that tastes as if a lemon had dropped in uninvited.
    Cheers

    • Mmmm, I love really dry, acidic whites. You’re really supposed to have food with that kind if wine. Next time someone busts out the lemon wine, grab a piece of cheese and experience the goodness.

  2. Raisins- not dirt- make an aged port though, don’t they? I can’t say it is my favourite but I accept my mum likes it. I was at a tasting in La Guardia in the Spanish Rioja region and was very grateful to the sommelier for saying, “There is nothing intrinsically better about an aged wine. It all depends on your taste. Some people like aged wines with an oaked taste and other people like young fruity wines.”

    • The whole thing is ultimately subjective. And raisins aren’t per se a bad thing: ports, sherries, and other fortified wines are often intentionally or circumstantially oxidized, which gives them the characteristic nutty/raisiny flavor that we expect. But it just tastes weird when you do the same to a low acid, smooth tannin, fruit forward red that’s meant to be drunk fresh and young. It’s all about the overall character of the wine, as well as the people drinking it.

    • That party with the corked bottles is one of my favorite wine memories ever; I would argue that knowing that the wine was bad made the experience more enjoyable than if I was as clueless as everyone else. It certainly made it funnier. For me, bad wine is part of the complete wine experience. It adds to a complete understanding. As long as you don’t get too uptight, a bad bottle can be as much fun as a good bottle. And the good bottles taste SO much better when you know what you’re tasting.

  3. Great post- can’t imagine how anyone could enjoy corked wine. I wonder if that means some people think that old wine is meant to taste like c*ap? In Australia, most cheapies say ‘to be enjoyed now’, ie don’t even think about putting it away. Once every few years or so the Rieslings might be acidic enough that a reasonably priced bottle could be stored, but you’d need to make a serious investment if you want to get a red that you want to hold on to for a few years.

    • I think mind over matter tends to fill in the gaps of ignorance. If you’ve been told old wine is good, and someone serves you an old wine that tastes like crap, your brain fills in the gaps and tells you that crap tastes good.

      Mmmm, a well aged Riesling sounds good right about now…

  4. My wife bought me a half case of mixed wines about 3~4 years ago as I present for a job promotion. We still have 3 of them! We were saving them for other special moments and felt safe due to the old wine adage. Oh man, I wonder how they’ll taste. I probably would have loved them if I hadn’t read this, but no worries because I force myself to believe I prefer truth and facts over fantasy and emotions.

  5. Jessica F. says:

    Definitely an interesting read and the information here I will bring with me next time I’m shopping for a bottle of wine! Thanks!

  6. I have a bottle of white wine stored that my husband bought me on our first date. I haven’t opened it because I think the design on the bottle is gorgeous and now I probably never will because I’m it’s awful by now.

    • A bottle of wine takes on value for many different reasons. Sounds like this one is extremely valuable because of the story behind it, whether or not the wine inside is still good. What’s the vintage and what kind of wine is it?

      • I’m a little embarrassed now because I am not a connoisseur, I’m definitely a drink it in 20 minutes kind of girl, but I’m so fascinated I scaled the kitchen counter to look. Ouro Verde 2010.

      • Ah, Vinho Verde from Portugal. There’s actually a pretty solid chance the wine is still drinkable, but I think the story of the bottle is more important than the quality of it’s contents. Something like that is literally once in a lifetime. Put the bottle on display, share the story with your guests and children, but if you’re thirsty keep that memory preserved and buy a fresh wine to drink.

      • We had a running joke that I would drink it if we ever broke-up, smash the bottle, the holder and have a ritual burning of the cozy shirt I stole from him. We plan to open in our golden years, but it may have to stay our keepsake on display in our kitchen. I can’t help, but chuckle at the vision of us in our rockers on the front porch wearing pj’s sipping rancid wine we thought we aged to perfection. Thank you for the blog. I really enjoyed reading it.

  7. Hah! I was forever amazed at the correlation of age and wine …what was it that made it always a desiree…Well, like you rightly put it, its mind over matter and thats what everything in life is alla bout. Well said and well taught to a naiive like me. Thank you and congratulations (especially on your clandestine execution :) )

  8. Wow, who knew. I’m not the biggest wine drinker (Actually don’t laugh but I consider Arbor Mist wine). But yeah I assumed wine got better with age, this was very informative.

  9. I must agree with 18there4Irun: my wines are not making it to any old age. I love a heavy red. I quite enjoyed your blog, Always looking for good info about wine, it can be very intimidating without proper guidence. Or, you make an idiot of yourself over a old bottle of cheap wine!

  10. This is indeed a descriptive explanation of how aging happens and how wine tannin happens. This is also one its first kind. Your expertise on the subject matter is so commanding. I am already your fan.

  11. I love to enjoy the occasional glass of wine.. Or two. But I enjoy sweet white wines, which apparently means I’m not a “wine drinker”. This has never made sense to me, btw. If I’m drinking wine, regardless of red or white, am I not a wine drinker? But anyway, I found your article to be very informative as though I AM a wine drinker, I don’t have much knowledge on the subject.

    • A common pitfall of people who label themselves a “wine drinker” is to act like sweet wine is automatically bad, and that is 100% incorrect. There are some absolutely fabulous semi-sweet and sweet wines out there. Go grab a Mosel Riesling from Germany (or a bottle of Banyuls if it’s a special occasion) and tell me those aren’t fabulous wines. The important thing is to not limit yourself, because there is so much good wine out there (red, white, sparkling, sweet), but at the same time: you like what you like. Nothing wrong with that.

  12. Pingback: Dreaming of Chianti | alittleway

  13. I’m a big wine lover especially reds. Thank you for this knowledge. I live in Brooklyn & I’m going on a wine tour at Brooklyn winery in Williamsburg. Last summer intent on a wine tour in Long Island. I was very impressed. My 1st tour was in Napa valley. However I wasn’t that knowledgeable about wine then. That’s changed a lot. I’m starting to really appreciate it now & eager to learn. This was a great read. Thank you.

  14. debian4ever says:

    I am from Florence, Tuscany, Italy, and I know well wines from my region.

    I remeber clearly a dinner in a restourant part of a fabulous Villa near Rome (Lazio region) with young couples drinking happily an horrible wine. Nobody except me understanded how terrible that red wine was, the lowest quality possible, it was probably wasted wine given for free to the restourant of the villa.

    But… they enjoyed it so much because they think it was a genuine product of the beautiful countryside that surrounded the villa.

    They were cheated and I didn’t want to ruin the party. everybody enjoyed it and there was no problem at all.

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