Tim James: The relative joys of younger and older wines

By , 27 May 2019

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When someone asked editor Christian Eedes if he liked old wine, in response to some recent notes and scores, it prompted two thoughts in me. The first was about the usefulness of a wine critic’s tastes being transparent to readers, and I discussed that matter here. The second was wondering how I myself would respond to that question.

One trouble is that there’s almost an implicit answer in the adjective “old”. If a wine is too old, then probably few people would like it. But as a general description of, say, the varied wines in the line-up that Christian was discussing, it’s hard to think of an alternative – even though some of those wines were definitely senescent, had clearly deteriorated to a greater or lesser degree; one or two were dead; and a few were even quite fresh, offering great delight. To call them all “old” seems a bit unfair unless there’s an objective number of years as a qualifier. But, then, I suppose the same sort of discrimination could be made of people as they get past anything that could politely be called advanced middle age.

The point of the person querying Christian was, I think, whether his fairly modest range of scores indicated that he had a general comparative lack of pleasure in older wines as opposed to younger ones. A good question, and the one that nags me. Because even the wines in that tasting of “old wines” that were still really good – at least not far down the slope on the other side of their peak – even they had a character significantly different from what they must have had ten or twenty or thirty years before.

Certainly that applied, for example, to two reds that I’d particularly enjoyed in that tasting: Kanonkop Cab 1975 and Nederburg Cab 1971. Structurally, everything was integrated and harmonious in a way that wouldn’t have been the case in their youth, when the components must have been in balance but not harmonious, with, especially, the tannins overt, even harsh (now they were fully resolved, informative but scarcely distinguishable). But the primary fruity flavours and the aromas and flavours brought about by fermentation were long gone and transmuted into tertiary characters – plenty of flavour, but more of “old red wine” than specific variety or origin. (That’s why it is generally more difficult to identify old wines.)

I did like the wines very much, almost certainly more than I would have enjoyed them tasted in the 1970s. But quite possibly (even probably) I’d have enjoyed them more in the 1990s than now when they would have had a little more vigour. I think that part of the enjoyment of most 40+ year old wines is consciously revelling in the triumph of survival over time. That perhaps even applies to some wines like excellent port or Madeira which unquestionably can be at their peak when many decades old. I well remember one of my truly great wine experiences, at a tasting in 2016 comparing the “legends” of old Cape wine with equivalents from the rest of the world. The whole tasting was splendid, but I wrote of the magnificent Taylors Vintage Port 1948 that it was “showing eloquently what magic can happen in a bottle, given half a century and more, to fiery alcohol and massive tannins if in perfect balance with fruit intensity.”

Enjoying wines like the Kanonkop and Nederburg I referred to is something of an acquired taste; there can initially be a jolt if one has only known and grown to love younger, fruitier and fresher wines. I was lucky in earlyish having a wine-sharing friend with knowledge and experience – and a cellar of good old wine. That was in the 1990s when also, frankly, there was not the range of brilliantly made red Cape wines that there is now, many of which I love drinking in their youth (those cinsauts, some syrahs and grenaches, a few pinots and others….). I’m certainly more open to such young wines now than I was. In fact, I do feel that I less enjoy wines that are on the decline than I used to. Perhaps it is partly that I’m in the old, older, ageing, whatever category myself, and taking younger wines into my system is a rejuvenating (or at least compensating) thing.

But I was also reminded over the last few weeks, by my disparate everyday drinking from my cellar, that the more serious South African wines really do require at least some ageing to start showing their best (the best that one is now paying not a little money for). Two ten-year-old reds, for example: Le Riche CWG Auction Reserve Cab 2009, and Waterford “CSM” 2009 (my bottle was a sample with the handwritten label – might have been an experiment for the CWG of cab, shiraz and merlot). Both were drinking really well, undoubtedly giving more textural, structural satisfaction than in their youth, and with flavours probably that bit more interesting. Both will last and probably develop for quite a few more years, but I don’t think it’s cutting them off too rudely in their prime to drink them now.

The older white wine I had was Alheit Cartology 2012 (the second vintage of that fine blend). I’ve had four or five bottles this year, because it seemed time to do so, and in fact they’ve been a bit varied, some undoubtedly better than others (an inevitable possibility with cases of older wine). This last bottle was excellent, and, more than the red wines I think, had flavours that had evolved into greater beauty and complexity.

On the whole, looking for a generalised guide for the best South African wines these days, I’d reckon on ten years for reds and five for whites. They should, anyway, be good at that sort of age. Anything more and there’s the danger of implacably advancing decrepitude.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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  • Kwispedoor27 May 2019

    Thanks for a thoughtful and interesting article, Tim. I think the mysteries of how wine ages will continue to elude us – perhaps to a lesser degree as scientific advances are made, but ultimately still to some degree, at least. Overall, not too much came from some winemakers’ claims that their big and burly nineties reds will last for many decades. Just as nobody would ever have claimed much longevity for the 1966 KWV Cinsaut that blew my mind (and those of a few sharp and experienced palates that were with me) just last year. It’s easier to gauge possible longevity if viticultural and oenological components remain fairly constant and a wine has a proven track record over time, but even educated guesses on maturation potential will be proven wrong (and sometimes spectacularly so) often enough. For me, that’s part of wine’s irresistible attraction.

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