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aged wineIn comparison to wines of the 20th Century, the contemporary style of winemaking, especially for high-end wines, tends toward riper fruit, lower acidity, higher alcohol and riper tannins. Why this change in style? In part, it was forced by the emergence of warm climate, new world wine regions influencing the expectations of wine lovers. But the deeper reason is that these big, bold, fruit forward wines are more accessible, especially to novice wine drinkers. They are flamboyant, more powerful, sweeter, showing their charms without reserve and are ready to drink upon release unlike the older style that required years of cellaring. In short, these wines have what might be called “deliciousness”. It should not go unmentioned that the most influential wine critics, such as Robert Parker, love this style and give these wines high scores thus encouraging the wine drinking public to jump on the bandwagon.

But one central element of a wine score, at least among the major critics who move the market, is the critic’s assessment of how the wines will age. Although this modern style does not require cellaring, connoisseurs adore the characteristics of aged wines and thus fine wine must be capable of improving with age, and for investors who hold wines to be sold when they are at their peak (and the supply has dwindled thus raising their price), the capacity of a wine to age is crucial. “Deliciousness” is all well and good but not at the expense of velvet textures and aromas of old books.So this recent article by Jane Anson in the wine magazine Decanter is causing some heartburn. There is evidence that the premature oxidation that afflicted some white wines from Burgundy in the 1990 vintages will also affect red wines made in this modern style:

‘I believe there is a similar scandal with red wine, and that in 10 years’ time it will be just as explosive as the one affecting white Burgundy has been. And it’s not limited to one region; all red wines that are expected to be aged for long periods of time – so Barolo, Napa, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy and others – are in danger of ignoring this threat.’

The evidence cited includes recent tastings of the 2003 vintage in Bordeaux which appear to age prematurely:

Even among the biggest names there were bottles that were showing tired fruit, flabby structure and were generally past their prime; all signs of oxidative destruction that is not expected at such an early stage in the life cycle of fine red wine.

The theory explaining why modern wines might oxidize prematurely seems sound. Excessively ripe fruit lowers the acidity of the grapes and may lack some of the compounds that protect the fruit from oxidation. And all those soft tannins that make wines drinkable when young are achieved through infusing the wine with small quantities of oxygen that does in the winery what used to take years in the bottle. It makes intuitive sense that introducing excessive oxygen in the winery will cause wines to prematurely oxidize.

Of course our intuitions about such matters are often wrong, but if the hypothesis is true, the consequences are profound. All those fantastic vintages in Bordeaux and Napa from the past decade may turn out to be worthless plonk in 10 years. Modern winemaking practices will be called into question and some very important critics will have enough egg on their faces to feed omelets to the homeless for decades.

Skeptics point to the fact that 2003 in Bordeaux was an unusual year with excessive heat spikes and thus not a proper test of how the better vintages will age.  And the article quotes many winemakers who argue that the problem of premature oxidation can be handled by careful winemaking. Only time will tell as the best vintages mature and people begin to drink them.

Why should you care about this? Although in our time-compressed world, the beauties of aging are often overlooked, there really is nothing that quite compares to a well-aged wine. Although some foods and beverages improve over the short run, there really is no other substance that develops such nuance and complexity over decades. It would be a shame that we trade this uniquely transcendent experience for more flamboyance and accessibility. Don’t we have enough of that already?