I Am Aging
I am aging. This is evident both in my thinning hair and sagging body. Thankfully, my eyesight has worsened as the years have accumulated. And for all this humiliation, am I at least improving with age? Am I like a fine wine that needs a few years to mellow some particularly strong characteristics after which I will emerge balanced, complex, ineffable? I’ll ask my mother that question, she may give me the gentlest answer.
Now that I mention it, why do many wines need time aging in the bottle before they are ready to drink? How do you know if a wine will improve with time in the bottle or fall apart only to resemble an aged rock star: flabby, tired and a shadow of his former self? How can you be sure you end up with a Johnny Lee Hooker and not a David Lee Roth?
When young, many wines are dominated by a few very pronounced characteristics. Ideally, these notes (call them musicians in a talented youth orchestra, if you would like) are in some kind of balance of magnitude but every player is fresh and exuberant and playing at full throttle to impress his mother. The experience as a whole can be disjointed and aggressive. It can also be a challenge to enjoy other aesthetic pleasures in the surrounding environment—like the food on your plate—when the wine crashes through whatever dare lay in its path. But some people enjoy wine and music that way. “Turn it up, show me what you got, the bigger the better. I paid a lot for this wine so it had better feel like a lot in my mouth.” It is the consumer’s prerogative.
But something happens if you allow a wine to mature a little. The overt and singular primary grape flavors of the wine begin to coalesce and aromas of earth, tea, leather, mushroom, flowers, honey, caramel, metal, etc. come to the fore. The blaring oak flavors, whether they are vanilla, brown spice, raw wood, or charcoal, become less distinct and evolve to a less visible supporting role. Tannin chains lengthen and some precipitate and fall to the bottom of the bottle. The remaining long chain tannins provide shape without drying the tongue and stopping the flavors short on the palate. If the acidity level is ideal, the wine remains vibrant and fresh and cleanses the palate at the finish. The wine is experienced as a mature whole greater than the sum of its youthful parts. Power and amplitude diminish to be replaced by nuance and subtlety. How does this happen?
Wine is made up of dozens of chemical compounds in large quantity and thousands of compounds in minute quantities. While in barrel or in bottle, these compounds interact with each other to form new compounds. These reactions can be understood to cascade: products of one reaction become reactants for the next reaction and so on. The rate at which the first reactant, oxygen, is introduced affects the quantities of the various compounds in the cascading chain of reactions at any one time. This is why a glass of wine left out overnight doesn’t at all resemble an old wine. The initial state of the wine at the end of fermentation (while still in the fermenter) is highly anaerobic; the yeast has consumed all available oxygen. Oxygen is slowly picked up from moving the wine from fermenter to barrel and from transpiration through the barrel staves. After dissolving into the aqueous solution, the oxygen reacts preferentially with some molecules, e.g. phenolics associated with tannins, bitterness, and color. The higher oxygen containing molecules react with lower oxygen containing molecules, either passing off an oxygen or polymerizing with each other. The longer chained tannins are an example of more highly polymerized compounds and their perception in the mouth is soft and silty. Short tannins from young red wines or un-polymerized ellagitannins from new oak are quite grippy and drying. Color also changes since it is a flavanoid and a phenolic monomer, and polymerization of it turns wine from deep red/purple (depending on which flavanoid it is) to brick, then rusty red, and finally brown.
There is, however, a peak expression after which a wine no longer improves with age. Once it passes this apex the flavor of the wine begins to slowly fade away until all compounds eventually polymerize and you are left with a flavorless, dark liquid. The peak is the moment when the fruit expression has fully evolved and volume, acidity and tannins are in perfect harmony. The best aged wines I have tasted left me speechless (a feat.) The components of the wine melded into one singular, balanced personality that was best described as “yummy”, rather than a lengthy string of adjectives. Not all wines improve with time, however. If there is not enough acidity and tannins to preserve the wine while it ages, the resulting wine will become flabby, prematurely oxidized, and out-of balance. This happens often in a high alcohol wine as it is likely the acidity is low since there is an inverse correlation between acidity and alcohol levels. Even if acid is added to the wine, as the wine ages other components lessen in magnitude to come into balance with one another while the alcohol stays at the same level. That is why the alcohol level in a young high alcohol wine can seem “in balance” but when the same wine is tried a few years down the road the alcohol sticks out like a sore thumb.
So, all that remains is determining whether a wine is “built to age” — before trying it! There are a few indications found on the label. Hillside fruit potentially provides smaller berries with a higher ratio of skin to juice resulting in more tannins and higher acidity. A low-to-medium level of stated alcohol may indicate sufficient acidity and is – roughly – an indicator of the actual alcohol level1. The appellation or vineyard site will give you some idea of how appropriate a site’s climate is for the grape grown. Cooler sites will more likely produce fruit with less juicy fruitiness, greater acidity and mature phenolics and lower alcohol levels due to longer hang time. And then there are tasting notes – whether they come from the winery or from critics. The descriptors may reveal the winemaking style and consequently whether the wine may improve with age.
Last November, we sat down to taste through all of the past vintages of our Syrah from 2001-2005. I condensed my tasting notes to focus on whether I think a wine will improve with further time in the bottle or whether it should be drunk now. If you do not have any of these wines in your cellar, we will have minute library releases in the next few years of a few of them. In the meantime, we are hosting wine dinners this spring in major cities all over the U.S. (see page 7) where we plan to pour a few library wines. We hope to enjoy them with you. And then you can judge whether we – and our wines – are improving with age or whether, perhaps, we should have been enjoyed at a more youthful stage.
|2001 Peay Vineyards Estate Syrah||Drink Now/Hold to 2010|
|A beautiful wine from 4th leaf (young vine) plants. The fruit aromas persist though leather, game and spice have emerged to round out the personality. It is drinking well now and should either be drunk now or held for up to 2 more years.|
|2002 Peay Vineyards Estate Syrah||Hold to 2010-2012|
|The fruit aromas have mellowed though the spice level remains high. There is sufficient acidity and tannins to hold the wine for 2-4 years to wait for the spice to come into ideal balance.|
|2003 Peay Vineyards Estate Syrah||Drink Now/Hold to 2013|
|The wine is in balance as a whole yet still youthful. Mature elements are just starting to emerge making it tempting to drink now while the wine still has power. If you want power, drink now. If you would prefer for the wine to become more subtle with aged aromas, it will age well for at least 5 years.|
|2004 Peay Vineyards La Bruma Estate Syrah||Hold to 2013|
|On release this wine was full of vibrant, high-tone lavender and red fruit notes. These characteristics are still paramount. Ideally the wine should be held for the primary fruit character to mature and for reductive notes to emerge. I believe the ideal window will be reached in 5+ years.|
|2004 Peay Vineyards Les Titans Estate Syrah||Drink Now/Hold to 2018|
|This is already drinking well. If you want vibrancy and power, drink now, though the tannins could stand to subside a bit. It needs significant decant time for other characteristics to coalesce. If you prefer for the wine to become more subtle with more aged aromas, I would hold it for up to 10+ years.|
|2005 Peay Vineyards La Bruma Estate Syrah||Drink Now/Hold to 2013|
|This wine has been drinking very well since release. It needs 45 minutes in a decanter for the flavors to emerge and coalesce. If you wait, I believe the wine will improve for about 5 years as aged qualities emerge and come into cohesion.|
|2005 Peay Vineyards Les Titans Estate Syrah||Hold to 2015 and longer|
|This wine is still massive and youthful. It needs at least 5 years to reach potential, perhaps 10. If you drink now, decant for an hour for the wine to unwind.|
1 Above 14% alcohol, the alcohol level stated on the label must be within 1% of the actual alcohol level, below 14% the range is 1.5%.