Drinkable upon release

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smA recent post by Steve Heimoff, which can be found at http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2011/06/09/crazy-about-aging-wine-literally/

got me to thinking about when a bottle of wine should be consumed.

I agree with Heimoff that California wines in general can be drunk upon release. That doesn’t mean that they won’t necessarily benefit from a few years in the bottle. Many California wines are released a couple of years after the vintage, but really don’t peak until more like 5 years after the vintage. This would particularly be true of Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet many California wines, particularly the lighter ones, are excellent upon release, and whether a few more years of aging will benefit them is debatable. To a great extent, it depends on how you like your wines. If you like them fruit forward with some significant tannin, then drinking them earlier may be your preference. If you opt instead for a softer, more elegant wine, then waiting those few years may be what you prefer. If you’re like me, sometimes you prefer the younger, and sometimes the older, styles.

But whether you like your California wines 2 or 5 years old is nothing compared with some other wine regions. Many Bordeaux wines, for example, are simply undrinkable upon release, and for many years afterwards. At least in theory, with the passage of many years, these wines will turn elegant and delicious. All too often, they instead just lose most of their fruit along with their harsh, biting tannins, and end up being drinkable but not very pleasurable.

The decision to put down a wine for a few years is really a decision that only a relatively small number of wine consumers face, or make. Most wine is in fact consumed within a few weeks, if not days, or purchase. For these consumers, a wine needs to be pleasurable upon release, since that’s the only time they consume it.

Which is why most wines, at least in California, are made to be pleasurable young, since being pleasurable when old is beside the point, since no one drinks the wines when they get old. That’s a good thing, since most California wines don’t age real well anyway. To be able to age, a wine needs acid and tannins, and most California wines are too soft to do well over an extended period of time.

One other point: despite the wine press’s repeated exhortation that a wine can be aged for this or that many years, no one can really predict that accurately how long a wine will go before falling apart. And even if a wine can go, say, 10 years, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be better in 10 years, just that it won’t be brain dead.

I think it’s fair to say that, as a rule of thumb, California red wines are going to be pleasurable when released, and will continue to be for 5 years after the vintage. After that, with each additional year, it becomes more and more of a crap shoot.

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