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There's a Fine Art to Aging Gracefully

May 07, 1997|MATT KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The majority of the world's wines--as much as 95%--neither need nor deserve any more aging than it takes to get the bottle home from the store. So why is there so much concern about how long a wine should be aged?

Wine populists like to say that all the business about cellaring wines for years is a lot of hooey. Traditionalists reply that older wines deliver nuances absent in sprightly youth. Both are right, depending upon the wine.

Part of the problem is semantic, the key word being "aging." All wines will age. That's no trick. The issue is what happens to the wine as a result of aging.

Here's the nub of it: When wine drinkers talk about a wine that "deserves cellaring," what they mean is that it will transform into something better than its current self. That's the critical issue. Cellaring a wine (never mind whether it's really a cellar or just a closet) is all about waiting for that caterpillar to butterfly transformation.

Remarkably few wines possess this capacity. Most wines, especially reds, will become smoother if given some extra aging in the bottle. Cabernet Sauvignons, for example, become more supple and less tannic if given a year or two of cellaring. Most young white wines will taste less sharp with a bit of bottle age, as the acidity of the wine mellows and more fruit emerges. In such instances, aging serves to make a wine more gentle, which is pleasant indeed.

But transformation is something else again. Truly great wines can transform to such a degree that the difference between youth and maturity is almost shocking. The wine has not merely become smoother and rounder, it's not even the same wine anymore. Its very character has changed.

Take Chablis. For centuries, the world has been going on about this exclusively Chardonnay-growing district in northern France. If you taste a young Chablis, even from the greatest vineyard and producer, you will wonder what the hoopla is about; young Chablis is unpleasantly tight and acidic. But if you taste that same Chablis five or 10 years later, a penetrating scent of hay and minerals will leap out of the glass. What once seemed thin and feeble has become potently and complexly flavorful.

Experienced wine drinkers know such transformations exist. That's what makes them so sure a wine isn't ready to drink; the transformation hasn't occurred yet. But what they don't know--and hedge their bets about--is when the blessed event will take place. Every wine is different, and so is every cellar, closet, basement, garage or shed.

Temperature is the key: The cooler the storage, the longer the transformation takes, which means more fruit is preserved. Cooler is always better, although if it gets too cold (less than 45 degrees) the wine will mature so slowly that you should put it in your will.

Barring such frigid extremes, how long you should wait is cussedly complicated. Every wine of promise, like every child, transforms at its own rate. You have to try a bottle every now and then to see how it's coming along. This, of course, is not such a burden. The following wines will encourage volunteers to do their duty.

*1995 Cline Cellars Zinfandel "Ancient Vines" ($15.95): No red wine engenders more dispute about when it's best drunk than Zinfandel. Partly, this is because so many styles of Zin exist, from bright, light, Beaujolais-style versions to deep, tannic brooders that practically growl when you approach them.

Making matters more complicated is that (this is just one taster's opinion) Zinfandel doesn't transform all that much--compared to, say, Cabernet. But it does mellow beautifully, its tannic roughness disappearing over time. And time does change the wine to the extent of heightening the tar and prune aromas of many Zins. That comes, however, at the expense of youthful qualities such as Zinfandel's characteristic scents of raspberry and blackberry.

This is why there's a never-ending discussion about whether it's better to drink Zin young or mature. And the wrangle certainly isn't going to be settled here. I don't know myself. I like Zins both ways, although I prize those berry flavors more than the tarry ones. Then again, with a nice piece of lamb, mature Zins are ideal.

Making matters more complicated yet is a wine such as Cline Cellars' "Ancient Vines" Zinfandel. It's a stunning Zin: dense, rich, concentrated and beautifully made. Drawn from a variety of very old Zinfandel plots--some more than 100 years old--in Contra Costa County northeast of San Francisco, this "Ancient Vines" bottling is delicious drinking now, yet its balance and depth suggest that it will be superb five or even 10 years from now. The superb '95 vintage, by the way, is the first edition of the "Ancient Vines" designation.

Look for a street price as low as $11.95, which makes this a Zinfandel that can be bought in generous enough quantity to offer both immediate, as well as delayed, gratification.

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