We've all heard that fine red wine is better when it's older. I generally agree with that, yet as I personally age, I realize how few older wines actually are "better."
Instead I'm finding that many of these deep, dark red wines are merely different--still oaky, still hard and gritty. These days I prefer leaner, more gracefully textured wines; if faced with one of the oaky/tannic wines, I prefer to drink them younger than I once did. Or not to drink them at all.
The main reason so few of today's fine red wines age gracefully is that too many (especially California Cabernet Sauvignons) have too much tannin and/or oak. A decade after the vintage, most of what remains is oak and astringency. Fruit is the first quality to flee.
Some wine collectors are succumbing to the myth that old (and usually decrepit) is preferable to young (and still vibrant of fruit) because they believe the "experts" who tell them they should like a certain wine. Since oak flavors are now in vogue with some reviewers, we are all being educated to like oak instead of fruit.
It is my experience that too many people stock wine cellars with red wines they haven't tasted, or taste so infrequently they don't realize that many of their wines are "over the hill" before their time.
I had a chance to look at a range of 13-year-old red wines the other day, at my son Adam's bar mitzvah party. I opened 15 different 1981 California Cabernet Sauvignons in addition to a magnum of 1981 Chateau Figeac, a personal favorite. All the wines were from an underrated vintage, both here and in Bordeaux.
It wasn't a scientific test--50 people attending a party, ranging from wine experts to complete novices--but it told me a lot about what a divergent group of people actually like.
Grading the "test" was actually quite simple: I looked at the wine level in each of the bottles after the dinner. Since guests could pour as much of any wine as they desired, the bottles with the lowest levels were the best-liked.
The first bottle emptied was the Chateau Figeac, which was at its peak of drinkability, still fruity and flavorful though not dark and heavy. One of the top California "winners" was a surprise: Cabernet from Buena Vista, made from grapes grown in the cool Carneros region. Also drained dry were bottles from Beaulieu Vineyard, Tudal Vineyards, Gainey Vineyard (the "Limited Selection") and Villa Mount Eden.
None of these wines was particularly oaky when released.
Among the 1981 Cabernets that people left substantial amounts of were Steltzner Vineyards, Beringer Vineyards "Lemon-Chabot Vineyard," Rutherford Hill Winery, Alexander Valley Vineyards and William Hill Winery. Almost all of these wines were bigger and deeper when released than the "winners" were.
The main fault with the also-rans was heavy tannin and still-noticeable oak that robbed the wines of their remaining fruit.
The following week, the Opus One project, a joint venture between the Robert Mondavi Winery and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, unveiled its new 1991 vintage red wine. Since 1991 is one of the greatest Cabernet vintages in the history of the Napa Valley, I was eager to see how the most expensive wine in the valley ($75) fared.
At a luncheon, the winery poured for guests the 1981 Opus One, an excellent contrast to the 1981s of the prior week.
The 1981 Opus One was magnificent, with superb complexity from bottle age, and moderate tannins and oak to match with deep fruit. It was wonderful, and I recalled its release 11 years ago fondly: The wine had just enough oak and tannin for the long haul. It has aged well.
The 1991, the first wine to be made at the magnificent, multimillion-dollar Opus One facility, is very concentrated, full of cassis and red currant aromas, and striking for a cedar or sandalwood note that grew stronger with aeration.
Is it a great wine? Yes, but. . . .
Although the new Opus One is not aggressively tannic, it is significantly oakier than past vintages.
(The aging of red wine in new charred oak barrels from France is now so pervasive that a tour guide for the Robert Mondavi Winery recently was heard to tell a group of tourists proudly, "Our NFO program is really working well these days." He later apologized, saying NFO was in-house argot for "new French oak.")
Will the 1991 Opus One age as well as did the 1981? I can't say. I'd like to review it again in six months or so to see if the oak has begun to integrate with the fruit.
The day after the Opus One unveiling, I waded through 32 more 1991 Cabernet Sauvignons and found many of the more expensive wines so hard, so gritty with tannin and so laden with new oak that I fear for their lives.
Among the wines that prompted me to write the words \o7 tough \f7 and \o7 hard\f7 on my score sheet were four Napa Valley red wines: from Martin Ray ($25), Pahlmeyer ($32), Merryvale Vineyards ($23) and Far Niente Winery ($40).