Esther Mobley’s paean to aged wines is a wonderful evocation of the joys of finding that gem still going strong after 30 years in the bottle. But that is often a solitary love affair as most wine lovers like their wines young and fresh finding the aromas of old books and dank basements to be off putting if not disgusting.
I share Ms. Mobley’s passion, but even she is puzzled by the lure of old wines as she runs through several possible explanations, all found wanting:
Maybe we project the aura of an aged wine’s rarity, and its often-accompanying expense, onto our sensory perception of it. Precious things taste better than ordinary things. The liking-it stakes are higher.
On the other hand, some of the pleasure may be chemical. As it ages, wine can reveal more umami flavor, that nebulously delicious taste sensation.
But she rightfully rejects these explanations because they fail to acknowledge that love of old wines is more an intellectual pleasure:
That doesn’t satisfy me, though. The joy of aged wine can’t be merely chemical, because I know that it rewards knowledge. This joy began to reveal itself to me only once I began to speak wine’s language of aroma, flavor and structure. In a cruel paradox, the more old wine disappoints me — and boy, does it love to disappoint — the more I’m drawn to it.
For me the attraction is in part sensory. There is a remarkably beautiful, fragile delicacy to well-aged wines that can be achieved only through many years in the bottle. Nothing else you can savor has it. But I agree with Mobley that part of the attraction is intellectual.
Aged wines reveal in a particularly evocative way that wine is a living organism in vital communication with its environment, undergoing mysterious transformations that can neither be predicted nor explained. And to sense that flicker of life amidst decay, to find an organism clinging to life suffering the travails of time—that is a classic and very human story. Wine has that uncanny resonance with human endeavor, a capacity for allegorical correlation that in part explains its allure for those of us who feel at home amidst musty books and dank basements