by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
I’ve been trying to clear out a large number of older wines recently. My general advice for California wines is to drink them up within 10 years. In typical “do as I say, not as I do” fashion, I have a large number of wines from California that are definitely beyond the ten-year point.
And, in general, I should’ve followed my own advice. Most of these wines are hollow ghosts of their former selves. In many cases, they are totally over the hill, showing an unacceptable level of oxidation.
I know I have often made the case that California wines simply don’t age that well. And, in general, I think that that is a true statement of the state of affairs. But do California wines not age well because of some innate characteristic or because of how they are made?
Entering the fray on this question is a wine that I opened last night, the 1993 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir from Lone Redwood Ranch.
I can’t even remember when I bought this wine, but it was a really really long time ago. Even when young, this wine was, in my opinion, a wonderful example of what Pinot Noir should be. It was light in body, high in acidity. As all Pinot Noirs should be.
So how was it last night? Well, in a word, spectacular. It is one of the best Pinot Noirs I have ever had. Generally, we think of the best aging California wine as being Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot doesn’t seem to last nearly as long. But this wine certainly put the lie to that generalization.
It is certainly the case that if you start with overripe grapes which are low in acid and tannin, and simply put them through the fermentation process without making adjustments, you’re probably going to end up with a wine that is not going to last terribly long.
If you start off with that same wine, but add a decent amount of acid, and maybe even some tannin, that wine should fare appreciably better.
If you start off with a wine that is not overripe, and maybe even a little underripe, with tons of acidity, it will do much better still. While tannins help, we know in general, and the Joseph Swan in particular, are not overly endowed with tannins. Certainly, when you think of what Pinot should be at its best, lots of tannin doesn’t factor into the equation. But this wine is certainly evidence that with enough acidity and being otherwise in balance, a California Pinot Noir can last a really really long time.
I’m not really sure how to describe this wine, since old Pinots tend to develop a nose which is unique unto itself. All of the usual descriptors that we apply to younger wines just don’t seem to have a place when talking about a wine of this age. I guess the best descriptor that I could give it is “old Pinot”.
So, if the question is whether California wines usually don’t age well because of innate characteristics or, instead, how they are made, this wine certainly comes down hard on the side of “how they are made”. I’m quite sure that these grapes were not picked too late, and I suspect that they naturally had plenty of acidity. It’s also possible that acid got added after harvest, though I tend to doubt this.
At any rate, this wine is simply glorious. It is everything an old wine should strive to be.