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Is age an overrated virtue in wines?

Wine writers love to talk about the ageing potential of wines. Some tasting notes are even written that include the predicted drinking window of a particular wine, often with startling precision (e.g. 'best between 2003-2005'). I'm sceptical. It is hugely difficult to be sure how a wine is going to age from tasting it, even with knowledge of past performance of the particular domaine or producer in question. Just because a wine has a firm tannic structure and plenty of rich fruit in its youth, it doesn't mean that it will mature into something attractive and harmonious 20 years hence. And another factor that cannot be ignored is that one persons beautifully mature claret can be written off as dead and dried out by someone whose tastes are different. This brings me to the theme of this piece: is age an over-rated virtue in wines?

Wine is almost (but not quite) unique among foodstuffs in that it has the capacity to improve with age. The combination of alcohol and acidity (and in some cases sugar) acts as a preservative, and will prevent microbiological spoilage of a wine stored in a properly sealed container. A sense of perspective is necessary here though: by far the vast majority of wines globally are consumed within a year of the vintage only a very small proportion will benefit from being kept for more than a few months. As regards the ageing process itself, this involves some pretty complex and poorly understood chemistry. In simple, qualitative terms, tannins 'soften', but along with this the fruit recedes and the wine begins to dry out. Some complexity may develop. In general, acidity stays the same.

A wine may survive for a long time in bottle and still be drinkable. But geeks will be interested in the sort of ageing that actually improves the wine. I've tasted many older wines that have disappointed. While I appreciate the complexity that can come with bottle age, to my palate many older wines taste dried out and have an unappealingly thin texture. I quite like the thicker, more muscular texture that younger wines have. I have no problems with firm tannins, if there's enough fruit. I would consequently urge people new to wine not to fill their cellars with wines that traditionally benefit from extended cellaring and leave them there without checking at regular intervals: the danger is you may end up with a cellar full of mature wines that you don't actually like. Try a few really old wines: if you like them, by all means subject your wines to a long sentence in the cellar. It is just that there does seem to be an unspoken assumption in wine circles that every sophisticated or able taster likes the taste of older wines, and I suspect this is actually not the case.

Ancient wines
There is a lot of fuss about extremely old wines. Very few get to drink them, so it is with a sense of awe that tasting notes of 'pre-phylloxera' Bordeaux (wines from before about 1880), for instance, are communicated. Yet it is hard to imagine that many wines of more than 100 years old -- or even 50 in the vast majority of cases -- are still going to be anything other than intriguing curiosity pieces. But I'd love the chance to be proved wrong…

A matter of pride?
Iberian countries in particular seem to take great pride in the longevity of their wines. The fact that many of these wines are usually dead and buried by the time they are drunk seems immaterial to the people who age them. The implication is clear: the older the wine, the better. It is also interesting to read the back labels of many new world wines, and note the drinking window suggested by the producers. I've often come across advice on the back of modest Australian reds suggesting that the wine will benefit from 'extended bottle maturation' of a decade or more, when in all honesty the wine is really best drunk within a couple of years of release. It's the same association again, between ageworthiness and the seriousness of the wine. Does a wine have to be capable of ageing for a long time for it to be of top quality? Actually, isn't it better from a consumers point of view to have a wine that is sensational on release than a wine that has potential on release but will only be sensational after 10 years' ageing?

Some great wines are unimpressive or unpleasant young
Having said this, it needs to be pointed out that most fine wines do need some bottle age to show what they are capable of. This may be because in their youth they are unpleasant (e.g. too tannic), unintegrated, or just simple. Complexity certainly does develop in many fine wines with a few years in bottle. And some wines are genuinely long-lived. Loire Chenin Blancs, first growth-quality Bordeaux and Vintage Ports, for example, seem to last forever when they come from a good vintage, and will certainly improve for two decades in bottle. And then there are wines that go through a closed or dumb phase.

Closing down
The phenomenon of 'closing down' is a mysterious one, and it is difficult to explain in precise terms. The general consensus is that many wines 'built' for ageing will show well for a couple of years after bottling (even though they may be ferociously tannic, they have a full aroma and expansive palate). Then they 'close down' for a variable period, losing much of their character, only to emerge some time later with the aromatic characters that are conferred by bottle age. While there is some debate about the mechanism involved, the phenomenon itself seems real enough.

Summing-up
If there is any sort of conclusion from this, it is as follows. First, I think age is widely overrated in wines. A very small proportion of wines benefit from extended bottle maturation, and even fewer absolutely require it. But it is these few, which can benefit magnificently from 20 years bottle age that cause people to associate age in a wine with quality. I suspect that in cellars across the globe there languish a large number of wines that would have been much better enjoyed by their owners if drunk in their youth. And while some people clearly do enjoy the characteristics of old wines, there are probably equal numbers who genuinely prefer wines to be a bit more youthful, thus making a mockery of the improbably precise projected drinking windows prescribed by many critics.