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They're Not Getting Better, Just Older


When you think a wine is really tasty and some snob says you're drinking it too young, ignore him. The whole idea of wine is to please, and people who insist that an older wine is automatically better than a younger wine are playing a silly game of one-upmanship.

Certainly, drinking a great old wine is truly a wonderful experience, but wine doesn't always have to age for it to be good. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the world's wine is meant to be consumed within a year of its production.

Yet a lot of wine, mostly red, is rated by so-called experts not on a simple hedonistic scale ("Hey, this is good stuff!") but on a scale that favors weight and power. The heavier the wine, the better it is. That's because the wine is being awarded points for quality that will presumably develop with age, even if the wine is acknowledged not to be very enjoyable now.

In fact, many heavy-style red wines are so tannic and rough that they will never age gracefully. There's an old saying, now out of vogue in these times of power-wine stardom, that a wine must taste good when it's young for it to taste good when it ages. I subscribe to this theory.

Indeed, if a wine is unpleasant when young, I doubt it'll improve.

I judge a lot of wine with a lot of people and I am constantly amazed by naive comments such as: "Yeah, sure this wine is as tannic as hell, but give it time; when it smoothes out it'll be great."

Yeah, and this used car was only driven on weekends by a little old lady.

A century ago, the main reason wine began to be aged was that it wasn't drinkable when young. These were wines that were big, rich, powerful and loaded with a lot of flavors, but were unbalanced. People found that if they held onto them for a while, some of the bad stuff would dissipate and the roughness would diminish.

I can give dozens of examples of wines that were awkward and astringent when young and that people swore would age. All that happened was that these wines got old and astringent. By then the vibrancy of youth had fled, leaving the wine without even the fruit as a blessing. All that was left was a mouthful of sand.

This happened more often in the bad old days of Bordeaux, when horrid vintages would come along and give the li'l ol' winemaker a very bad day (and year). Rain that hit weeks before harvest produced wine that was lean and lackluster when young and wretchedly undrinkable when old. Try anybody's 1969 Bordeaux today and see what I mean.

On the other hand, there have been wines (such as most 1961 Bordeaux and some California wines, such as 1975 Diamond Creek Cabernet and 1969 Mayacamas Cabernet) that were hard nuts to crack when young but which, to my amazement, developed charm with time.

So I'm not suggesting that no wine with obvious tannin will age. It's just that the astringency diminishes its chances of becoming enjoyable.

As an indication of this, some lighter-style wines have aged quite nicely, shocking some of the lovers of the heavyweights. I recall a 1973 Pedroncelli Cabernet that no one thought would be around in a year. Tasted in 1988, the wine was sound, enjoyable and most appealing.

This is the greatness of so many of the old Louis Martini Cabernets. Not much "stuffing" in them when young, but amazingly graceful when aged a decade or two.

The problem is: Too many people these days still equate weight (which means dark color, huge extract, high alcohol, a multiplicity of flavors, enough oak for a lumberjack and a texture only Stephen King could love) with the ability to age, and ability to age to greatness.

This is particularly true with Merlot, a grape variety that is supposed to yield a suppler, more approachable wine than Cabernet Sauvignon. In the last year I have found a lot of excellent Merlots as more winemakers discover the secret of training it to be a gracious dinner companion.

But I also have seen a number of wineries go astray here. One is the otherwise point-on Robert Mondavi Winery, whose 1990 Merlot is a strange duck. Mondavi first made Merlot in 1989. The wine was curiously hard and lacking much charm. I chalked that up to Mondavi's inexperience with the grape plus the awkward nature of the '89 vintage, and I waited for the 1990.

I shouldn't have waited. The 1990 wine is rivet-hard with tannin and doesn't have any of the generous fruit or herbal nuances I associate with Merlot. It tastes like the deservedly little-known Bordeaux grape Malbec; a coarse, dull wine, not the least bit supple.

"Ah, but will it age ?" you ask.

Who cares? The wine is not pleasant to drink right now, and to me that means the wine is a 40-to-1 shot on a muddy track to be anything more than amusing at any later date.

Sure, I could be wrong. But am I willing to wager 20 bucks on it. I'd sooner bet $16 on the 1990 Silverado Vineyards Merlot or $20 on the Cuvaison Merlot, both of which are great now and will be great in a couple of years. Virtual sure things.

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