Transfiguring Time

If you read the major wine magazines such as the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast most of their reviews of high-end wine are accompanied by a recommended drinking window. This “massive” Cabernet will last for 20 years; or drink from 2020 – 2030, etc.

It is thought that more than 90% of wines that are bought in supermarkets and wineshops are consumed the same day so the drinking window (in this context) is essentially meaningless. But that’s a topic for another rumination.

What’s not meaningless, however, is the notion that part of a wine’s essential quality is tied to the perception of how long that wine can age or how long past release the wine hits its peak. This equation is influenced by all kinds of caveats, and I have spent a career thinking about its validity.

America is a very young wine-drinking culture, and California a very young wine-making area. When you are just beginning to become interested in something you tend to look to examples from the Old World, no matter dissimilar the growing areas are.

The notion of ageability as a prerequisite for quality was formed long ago and based on a foreign paradigm that doesn’t seem relevant to me any more (viz. California wine). And Europe was the obvious place from which American winemakers and drinkers took their cues.  Bordeaux and Burgundy (Cabernet-based wine predominantly, and Pinot Noir) produced wines (generally) much harder in tannin and lower in fruit than their California counterparts. When my father really got into wine in the mid-1960s, the best examples of Cabernet were Bordelais and these massively tannic and acidic wines needed decades to soften and complex up. The same was rarely true of the California example of the grape – especially those wines made in the last 10-15 years when the predominant wine-making style shifted to longer hangtimes, more fruit, less acid, and less ageability.

ImageOne of the great truths and part of the essential nature of the greatness of wine as a thing is that it does CHANGE. Wine evolves; it matures; it lives out its life sometimes grandly and over a great many years and sometimes its nature is that of the May Fly. How wine practically changes is for a long chemistry conversation and is fairly well known. But HOW a wine is going to change or AGE is fraught with so many tangential but crucial questions I’d argue that it is knowable only within a range, and not even very well at that.

Storage conditions – temperature (absolute temperature and temperature range), humidity, absence of vibration and light; quality and integrity of the cork; wine variety; reputation of the producer; winemaking style; appellation; hillside or valley floor…all of these factors will influence the wine’s ability to age, practically speaking. Then when you take into account your personal preferences (freshness of fruit, like or dislike of tannin and acid and wood, desire for tertiary aromas and flavors brought on by bottle bouquet and age) age-worthiness as a signifier of quality becomes much more complicated and ephemeral a conceit.

The wine press and the avid wine consumer have taken a simple Old World reality that high-quality wines needed time to become enjoyable to drink and did their transmogrifying voodoo on it. What we are left with is a tarted-up New World notion that ascribes excellence to a dynamic that began as a purely pragmatic realization.

I would contend that there are no objective measures where affairs of the heart ( and of the palate) are concerned. I can measure the amount of titratable acid there is in a wine, the pH level, the amount of alcohol by volume, and a bunch of other things. What I can’t measure, though, is how these things make you feel, how all of these individual planks combine in your mouth and your mind and your heart to create your individual sense of the wholeness of the thing.

All wine’s can age. Not all, in fact, – most – are not meant to age for a long time. Each time you drink a wine, you are getting only a snapshot of its life; the quality of that life, however, is purely a product of your own needs and desires. Just like the color orange, expressing in words the essence of the thing you are tasting and smelling is nearly impossible.

Great wines tend to get more complex the older they are. Primary fruit and the impolite, exuberant structure of youth give way to integration and propriety and a depth we associate with maturity. Neither state is inherently more valuable or more worthy than the other. These states are not even individual stops reached in the whole span of life; they are only moments in time, fated to change even just a moment later. Really good wine gives a pleasure that is thrilling in its physical briefness, and very long in the memories that it creates. A great wine has less to do with how long it can live and more to do with its ability to transfigure the Time that it has.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s