Jamie Goode: Have drinking windows become shorter?

By , 1 March 2022

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Are too many modern-era wines being kept beyond their peak?

One of our expectations as wine lovers is that if we spend over a certain amount on a bottle of wine, we shouldn’t have to drink it straight away. Part of the culture of fine wine is that it can improve over time, and this belief seems to run deep in the wine world.

But wine has changed, and as they say in the financial service industry when selling investment products, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. As wines generally have been made to taste better young, we really need to question the notion of drinking windows. And there are several questions that need answering, addressed in turn to each segment of the wine market.

The first is this. Does a wine built for ageing have to compromise drinkability? Second, what is it that makes a wine ageable? Third, are some people sitting too long on wines that should have been drunk some time ago? And fourth, do we need to reconsider the idea that fine wines need to be ageable?

So let’s get stuck in. First, for making an ageable wine, I think there is a need to compromise early drinkability. Some of the great old South African wines I’ve enjoyed from the 1960s and 1970s, drunk over recent years, would have been quite challenging in their youth. Picked quite early (the modest alcohol levels attest to that), they would have been taut and tannic young. But they were built to survive many decades in the bottle. I’ve had far fewer good experiences with some of the South African reds from the late 1990s and early noughties, which were much riper and approachable on release. Picking later seems to compromise ageworthiness. Most of these wines had survived 10-15 years’ cellaring, but hadn’t improved, and were a bit mushy with age. Bordeaux, the world’s most famous fine wine region, has been on a similar journey with ripeness. Everyone assumes top Bordeaux reds are candidates for 50 years in the cellar. But look at the 2009s, for example: tasty on release, but I’d watch their evolution carefully if I was using them as an investment vehicle. And I was at a Ceretto (Barolo) vertical last week where Federico Ceretto said that climate change had changed Barolo, and these weren’t 40-year wines any more but 20-year wines, and they tasted much better on release.

This leads us on to the question about what makes a wine ageable. Wine chemistry lags behind peoples’ experiences here: you can’t really analyse a wine and then read out a drinking window. In general, though, tannins and other polyphenolic compounds help a red wine age longer. Lower pH also helps reds and whites age (which means that high acidity correlates with ageworthiness. But this could be correlation, not causation, at least in part: if you pick earlier your wine will have more acid, and picking earlier also correlates with ageworthiness in whites and reds. Lower pH also helps SO2 work more effectively, and SO2 also helps a wine age. A long élevage also helps make a wine age better: more time in barrel or foudre before bottling seems to make whites and reds better able to survive in bottle. With whites, oxidative juice handling that allows the phenolics to fall out seems to set the wine up best for longer ageing. And cellaring at cool temperatures also helps wine age gracefully.

This raises the question of whether we really need to have wines that are capable of long ageing these days, when so few have proper cellars? The answer to that question is answered when you taste a well-cellared great old bottle – yes, we do want wines that can age. It’s part of the joy of wine. But maybe we need to rethink the way we approach fine wine. Rather than assume that all fine wines can age, we need to think that those that have the potential for long ageing are the exceptions, not the norm. While most of our drinking will be of bottles with short-ish windows, there are going to be a certain number of classically structured fine wines that we need to cellar, and which have the potential for long ageing – the potential not merely to survive, but to develop positively in the cellar. There’s no doubt that now many very good wines are being kept beyond their peak drinking window, and I think this is a shame. People buy wine that’s reasonably expensive, and stash it away, and don’t get round to drinking it when they should.

I think that there is this unwritten contract that when you buy a wine over a certain price, it’s good for – say five years? – cellaring at least. Maybe we should re-think this? One of the joys for me as a wine drinker has been the emergence of the natural wine movement. Here, I suddenly got to drink ethereal, complex, aromatic red wines with many of the characteristics of well-cellared old wines but on release. These are not wines I’d have any inclination to cellar (although I realise here that there is a vast diversity of natural wines, and I’m making a generalization, and even some no-added-sulfite wines do have the capacity to age) but rather pop them straight away when I’ve bought them and really enjoy their complexity and elegance. This has changed the restaurant experience for me. It’s not just the natural wines, either: there’s now a host of beautifully fragrant, elegant, lighter-coloured infusion reds on the market that taste beautiful young. No longer do we have to open sturdy, built-for-ageing reds too young in their life when we dine out. We can drink young fine wines at their peak. This works for everyone: a lot of young winegrowers are making wine, releasing it in two tranches the year after it is made, getting cashflow, and customers are buying them, drinking them, and then coming back for more.

So I’d say drinking windows are getting shorter at one end of the market, and at the other, with a move back from picking later, they are getting longer. And we are moving to a more functioning system of fine wine.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.

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  • Guy1 March 2022

    Great piece!

  • Kwispedoor1 March 2022

    I agree with pretty much everything you say, Jamie. I like old wine and I like to experiment by maturing a wide variety of wines. Some wonderful surprises arise from these experiments. But yes, I have also burned my fingers with red wines that fall apart after a few years. Certainly some modern red wines are definitely best when smashed in its youth.

    What I have an issue with however, is when producers claim the best of all worlds. They will make a wine from ripe grapes with high pH levels, then add hardly any SO2, with an elevage of only 6-18 months, and then tell you that the wine is ready to drink upon release, but will mature well for many years. The truth is that such wines are very scarce. To me as a layman, it really does makes sense to add only small amounts of SO2 to young crunchy reds (especially Cinsault and Grenache) and to sell them as early drinkers. They seem to gain a vibrancy of fruit from it. But it also makes sense to me to properly sulphur your other red wines, in order to help with stability and longevity. I suspect this low SO2 regime is more of a zeitgeist fad and not particularly the wisest strategy for fine wine.

    I have to say though, that I’ve had much less issues with white wine. Most decent SA whites have no issues over a five year period and most of the best ones mature for 10+ years with ease (and often with proper benefit).

    I know why nobody’s doing it, but I’m still hoping that someone would make a slow-ripened Cabernet, Cinsault and Syrah, harvested at decent natural acidities, matured for 3-5 years in old barrels and sulphured with one eye on the future. Or is there something like it that I have missed?

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