Ahhh….the holiday season, the perfect time for hedonistic indulgence, reconnecting with friends and family and dipping into the cellar for some of those special wines you have been holding on to waiting for the right occasion. While blowing off the dust on those hidden treasures lets consider just what we should expect from some of these wines.
A regular question we as producers hear is “how long should I hold onto this bottle?”. A simple question with an answer that is more complicated than you can possibly imagine. This simplest answer is there is no one answer to this question. There is no blanket strategy that can encompass every wine for every person. As the science of winemaking has evolved, the predictability of wine quality in the short term has increased dramatically. At every level, from the budget oriented white zinfandel to the credit card scarring first growth wines overall quality has never been better. That is not to say that wines are better, only that the incidence of flawed wines has been reduced.
So, how do we evaluate the age-worthiness of wine? Wine, like art or like music is essentially a personal preference, and before we go any further let me say that from experience I have discovered that MOST people actually do not prefer older wines. Right there lies the key….older wines. Aging in wines is like aging in people, where each phase has its advantages for certain circumstances, but no one moment is the universally most appealing for everyone. That being said I will offer up some simplistic outlines that have served me well.
I will start with new world light and bright white wines focusing on Sauvignon Blanc. The winemakers of the world for the most part have crafted these in a style that is generally intended to be enjoyed sooner rather than later. Sauvignon Blanc can move swiftly through the process, can be harvested in August/September (in the northern hemisphere), and can be bottled and released by February/March the following year. The resulting wine is bright and vivacious, with clear, fresh citrus characteristics and crisp acidity as evidenced in the trend of the “New Zealand” style. The winemakers have designed these to be ready to go on release, and by design most of these wines are crafted in a manner that is unlikely to improve with time. For these, the key element becomes “how long can this wine maintain maximum quality before it becomes compromised by time?”. My experience has been that most of these wines have a 3-4 year threshold where they are at their best. That threshold is 3-4 years from RELEASE date and not necessarily the vintage date on the bottle. With very few exceptions, winemakers are hesitant to release white wines before their time as the consumer public has that instant gratification expectation with their white wines. So, the average bottle of 2014 Sauvignon Blanc was probably released in early 2015, meaning it should still be OK through early 2019.
What will happen with this wine over time is it will ripen somewhat like a banana. If you are like me, I only eat my bananas when they still have some green to the skin and the flesh is firm and a little less sweet, the equivalent of a young and tart wine. In the aging process of the wine, that 4 year old Sauvignon Blanc is developing those brown freckles of a banana that are an indication of maximum ripeness where soon after they will start to turn brown and the flesh will become somewhat mushy. For the wine, when it reaches that ripeness phase it will have lost some of its acidity and started to take on different fruit tones, changing from that bright lemon/lime grassiness phase, to a softer sweet lemonade effect texturally. The color will start to change from a vibrant clear straw tinted color to a more golden state. It bears mentioning that many consumers may really enjoy the transition phase before the wine starts to fade, so do not be afraid to embrace the richer tones before it all goes over the hill.
There are exceptions to every rule, and I have experienced some magnificent aged white Bordeaux blends and Alsatian wines that were truly incredible, but these are the exception rather than the rule. So for this type of wine, err towards the side of youth and enjoy them sooner rather than later. It bears noting that this rule will ring true for most of the wines released and readily available today. More on this next time.