Michael Fridjhon: Proclaiming wine drinking windows is harder than ever

By , 20 March 2024

Will Cheval Blanc 2015 age as well as the 1982?

US critic Robert Parker made his reputation on the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. It had been one of the biggest harvests on record. While the wines were clearly very appealing, the belief that big crops meant a quality compromise was so deeply ingrained that other critics were dismissive about its prospects. Not so Parker: he trumpeted the virtues of the wines, disregarding the suggestions that the yield had been achieved at a dilution of the fruit concentration.

Several years ago Pierre Lurton and I went out to a dinner at which we each brought a bottle of something “interesting.” His contribution was the 1982 Cheval Blanc (made many years before he took up his position as head of winemaking at the estate. In other words, he wasn’t showing off his handiwork). It was a fabulous bottle, seamless, intense and still remarkably youthful.

What particularly impressed Pierre was not that it had come from the 1982 vintage – by then the reputation of the year was beyond dispute. It was, in his words, that “it was all of Cheval Blanc – nothing was declassified – there was no second label.” In other words everything (except the obviously compromised grapes) went from the vines to the Grand Vin – the slightly overripe and the slightly underripe fruit, as well as whatever was harvested at the peak of perfection. And it turned out fine.

We now know that you can pretty much date the impact of global warming to around 1982. The warmer weather undoubtedly helped to make that stellar vintage. By 1990 everyone was saying that decades like the 1930s (when the vast majority of harvests was irredeemable) were a thing of the past. The better weather and the enhanced technical (and chemical) solutions would make great wines an everyday experience – even for the middle classes. (The en primeur price of the 1982 Cheval Blanc was about R25 – certainly affordable if you drove a BMW or could contemplate an overseas trip).

They were wrong about the ease of making great wine every year; we were all wrong about the great names being an attainable purchase for the middle classes (especially in South Africa). And, in my view, they were wrong in thinking that great yields of richer, riper wines would never come at a compromise to intensity, complexity and longevity of what went into bottle.

A little over a month ago the Winemag panel reviewed the Cape 2014s ten years on. I am told that at the same time they included a few (admittedly not very big name) Bordeaux reds in the line-up. These turned out to be unimpressive – certainly not worth what might have been paid for them five or six years ago, plus the cost of holding them. 2014 certainly wasn’t a much heralded harvest in Europe, though it had benefited from an Indian Summer which lasted twelve weeks. The vines staged an impressive comeback, delivering far better fruit than anyone could have expected during the endless cold wet months earlier in the year.

One vintage later, the 2015s went to barrel from a less compromised growing season, and were immediately hailed by the producers (and their collaborators, the journalists) as a “vintage of the century” – as were the 2016s, and the 2018s and 2019s and so on almost to infinity. The 2014s were at least not sold as vinous greatness. Instead they were “miraculous” – saved by the late summer sunshine. There was nothing of the same equivocation about the “legendary” vintages which followed it.

Warm, relatively dry ripening seasons yield pretty and approachable young wines. It’s easy to be seduced by them. Critics need to be alert to this, even if they are writing for consumers who may never age fine wines for as long as past generations deemed necessary. Global warming may be giving us richer and riper young wines, advancing the onset of puberty, but increasingly it appears to be shortening the plateau to senescence.

A great many Bordeaux reds now come to market at 14.5% ABV on the label. Right Bank (so merlot-dominated) wines are often over 15%. Burgundies, once lauded for their freshness, begin revealing signs of flabbiness within three or four years of the vintage. Châteauneuf-du-Pape – not exactly the coolest of the Rhône appellations – now treats 15% on the label as a norm, while 15.5% and even 16% are not uncommon.

So, assuming that growers don’t work out how to mitigate the impacts of climate change, the questions we need to address relate to the idea of “when to drink” and “how long to keep?” Tim James touched on this very point in a recent column. “Somehow we (or I) too easily assume that what we’ve proclaimed a really good red wine is going to see out its ten years of life and reward our expense and patience with some pleasing development. And I tend to pack such wines away and forget about them for too long – which is foolish, especially with a new wine with no track record.”

We are also going to have to think about which of the components of a young wine contribute to potential complexity, to secondary flavours and aromas, and to rethink our assumptions of what defines future greatness. It’s relatively easy to make delicious wines from properly ripened grapes. Fruit-juiciness in young wines should not be confused with age-worthiness. Nor should the presence of tannins and acids – however well-balanced and in evidence – mislead us into imagining that the fruit will last, or that the wine itself will evolve.

Nothing obvious replaces the certainties of the pre-climate change era. The closest we have is pedigree, which may help Tim James come to terms with the failure of some of the hipster wines (with decent enough analyses) to grow old gracefully. But the vineyard’s DNA is not enough to convince me as I wade through row upon row of overly precocious 2020s and 2022s from some of the best sites in Burgundy and Bordeaux. And in the ordinary course of actuarial projections, I expect to live long enough to watch more than a few fall off their perches.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Trophy Wine Show.


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