Although slim, healthy and still active, the gray hairs seem to be winning and he frequently gets called “old-timer.” He’s my 9-year old pug, Charlie. Alas, dogs, just like every other living thing, have a start, middle and finish. Wine, too, is no exception.
Wine is, in fact, alive, even though most of us probably consider it inanimate. Just as our skin tone, hair color, height and girth are subject to the effects of time—good or bad— wine’s evolution over time can be tracked visually. A young, cool-climate, white wine will usually be pale straw-colored—yellow, with green highlights. Over time, a 24-carat hue tints the glass, followed by an orange halo and eventually a “browning” in much older whites. Aromatics also fall prey to the calendar. Young, vibrant and fruity aromas, in time, mature into more complex and sophisticated bouquets, nuanced with floral and nutty notes. And, when over the hill, they become tired and dull.
White wines gain color with time, while red wines fade. The teeth-staining, inky ruby reds and glowing purples fade to orange, and when nearing death’s doorstep, browning occurs. Over time, the pigments responsible for color intensity bond with other wine elements to create a chemical reaction called precipitation. After about 10 years, these particulates begin to form a harmless sludge. I once witnessed a patron spit sediment across a table at the surprise of a solid in his otherwise aqueous wine. Take note: Sediment is actually a sign that a quality producer hasn’t stripped the soul of a wine through endless filtrations.
A wine that is youthful—a 3-year-old Cabernet from California, for example—will be forceful and fruit-driven. It may be fiercely tannic and seem to peel the enamel from your teeth, but its flavors are poignant and texture-rich. Leave that same wine to rest in a cool, dark cellar for a decade and time will tame those fierce tannins. That rich, dense mouth-feel will gradually turn silky smooth. Primary aromas of freshly crushed fruit and sweet cedar will be replaced by a complex, more restrained bouquet.
But don’t wait too long. Most wines aren’t built for the long haul. There’s no point in waiting till a wine is dusty, old and tired. Aging wine is a tricky game and often may prove fruitless (pun intended).
A safe, but pricey, bet is to buy a case of a particular wine and periodically open a bottle. This allows you to track the wine’s progression over time and to discover where your window of pleasure lies.
The most arrogant of wine-tasting notes teem with predictions: “Drink from 2010- 2015,” or “anticipated maturity 2010-2020.” I’m still waiting for someone with balls to suggest, “Drink now or use as paint thinner later.” Those predicted time frames are referred to as “drinking windows,” the time at which all the components of a wine (theoretically) harmonize. At this elevated moment, the wine hits its proverbial stride. In a perfect world, producers would not release wines till those windows were near. The reality, however, is most producers can’t afford to do that, and the bulk of wines are consumed within 24 hours of purchase.
All things on this Earth are aging. Some are improving, some not, and the rest are idle. There are windows of opportunity that present themselves each day. Whether it’s a stroll through the park with your four-legged friend or sitting down to enjoy a fine wine, young or old, it’s wise to heed the advice: Carpe diem.
Louis Koppel is a sommelier at Spencer’s for Steaks & Chops.