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Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09; The Aging of Wine?

PostPosted: Wed Mar 25, 2009 8:59 am
by Lyle Fass
The Ageablity of Wine as a Marketing Ploy?

We have all opened bottles past their prime and been very disappointed and been even more disappointed when we realize we have eight more in the cellar that are over the hill. Happens all the time. If there is one part of accepted wisdom in this peculiar hobby, it is that if we are told the wine ages 10-20-30 years, it will. No questions asked.

When I first started buying for my cellar I went straight for Bordeaux, as I was led to believe that this was a good cornerstone for my cellar because the wines would age seemingly forever. Even the little wines I was buying like Potensac, Pavie-Macquin, Leoville-Poyferre and Clos du Marquis were backed up by the idea that they would be long agers. I also bought German Riesling, spoofy and traditional Barolo (more spoof in the beginning of my purchasing days) and other odd wines that I heard would age like Bandol, Cote-Rotie and Ridge, etc.

Now I do not want to make blanket statements, which I am known to do every now and then, but as I am digging into my cellar more over the past three years, a lot of these wines have not performed up to my expectations and made me question the whole concept of wine ageing. Which led me to the idea that it may have been something that was touted as a unique and true aspect of wine when it first started being sold commercially, but as winemaking has changed, so has the character of wine and especially the character and idea of ageing.

The windows that wine critics give are not set in stone as one would think. When Jay Miller gives drinking windows for new wave Washington State wines, Spanish wines, Chilean wines and Aussie wines, can we really take those as the word of an expert who knows that these new-wave wines will age? Do we really want a cellar full of Cayuse, Clio and Clos Apalta in thirty years? Even based on the small amount of evidence so far, it seems that some of these newer style wines are not ageing as the retailers and critics would have you believe. We more than often tend to be left with wines that will be soupy, oaky, structureless messes and will not have aged (changed for the better and gained in complexity).

Can we really trust Antonio Galloni when he says a new-wave Altare wine will be at its best between 2015-2030? I had a 1995 Clerico Barolo Ciabot Mentin Ginestra in 2003 and it had seen better days. Granted I was just “checking in” on the wine but it was on its last legs. Young, this wine was typical new-wave de Grazia stuff. Oaky, rich, dark, and maybe a hint of Nebbiolo character. Now what I was hoping would happen with age was that some of this wood would integrate with perhaps more Nebbiolo character showing. What I got was a soupy wine with oak, acidity and stewed fruit. Not good. Not closed either, A wine that seemed to be propped up by fancy cellar treatment and then just dead. With that small bit of empirical data plus tons of other times I have had new-wave Barolo that falls way short of my expectations at the beginning of their alleged drinking windows, I would not want to be opening that last bottle of my 2004 Altare Vigneto Arborina Barolo in 2029, much less 2016.

The new-wave wines are designed to be drunk young. With the emphasis on design. There is a reason for this: a lot of the traditional wines were undrinkable when young. There used to be very long maceration periods that enabled the wine to suck out all of the compounds that create tannin, which enabled the wines to age. Unless you liked a wall of tannin that scraped your mouth like sandpaper then these wines needed to be aged.

Bordeaux from the 40’s and 50’s would be thrown in cellar to age for decades because these were wines that could not be drunk young. And back then Bordeaux was the name of the game. Nobody bought Rhone, SW France, Languedoc, Spain, CA, especially not to cellar. And Burgundy is the ultimate crapshoot in taste and cellaring, plus not many people were doing it then….

Giacomo Conterno, Cappelano & Bartolo Mascarello still employ these old-time methods are their wines are tough to taste young. With new-wave Barolo and the trend of short maceration times and getting color through other methods (roto-fermenters, small barrique), these wines cannot age like they used to, yet reported ageing windows are the same. Retailers are still saying that these wines will be better in 10-15-20 years. For people with unlimited resources, ageing wines is a fun hobby for them and if they have nine bottles of $210 a bottle wine that is over the hill it is part of the risk of the hobby and is shrugged off like a bad investment in Bernie Madoff. But what about the wine geek who scrapes together some money for a case of say Azelia Barolo or Cayuse Bionic Frog and then there they are sitting in 10 years with over the hill Madoff wine. They did not know jack about wine and got suckered into buying some wine that was not meant to age. There are countless articles and references these days to how wine is being made in a style to be drunk young. We live in an instant gratification society and the changes in winemaking, vineyard management, etc have reflected in the main style of wine these days, which is wine to be drunk young.

So why are numerous retailers, winemakers and critics touting the ageability of these “new-wave” wines? Well the answer is easy. Retailers need to sell wine. The more wine they sell the more money they make. It’s pretty simple. Wine ageing is a built in, almost bulletproof ideology that sells more wine than if wine did not age. It is one of the most unique aspects of any type of beverage out there. There is also an inherent sense, wrong if you ask me, in the wine world that older wine is always better than younger wine.

As is usual with all blanket statements in wine, this is false. Some wines are better younger and some wines are better older. Some are even better in-between. There is also a near-obsession with hitting the wine in peak form, that perfect moment when all of its components are in harmony. It’s nice when you do, don’t get me wrong, but from a rational/economic wine-buying perspective that is ridiculous. From my experience with old wine you have a 1/2 to 1/3 chance of the wine being good. It can be bad due to provenance, winemaking techniques and/or character of the vintage.

To buy numerous bottles of that one wine hoping for that peak experience in the life of that wine is pretty irrational. Get a life! If it happens in passing at a dinner, then it’s great that the wine shows well, but the joy of wine is not every bottle showing perfectly well all the time. That’s too Huxley-like. It means you are not drinking something that is alive. If your case of Duck Muck tastes the same, all 12 bottles, wouldn’t you be a little disappointed? All of these e-mails with six and twelve bottle prices are to get you to buy more wine that won’t necessarily age. No one really knows how wine will age with these new ways of cellar practice. From my limited sample set, not too well.

Wine meant to be aged, which there still is a lot of, (traditionally made Bordeaux, Mosel and Rheingau Riesling, traditionally made Northern Rhone wines, some Burgundy, Port, Madiran, Bandol and Irouleguy) will continue to age. I specifically leave out White Burgundy as that is the ultimate crapshoot due to the premature oxidation phenomenon. I know very few collectors who still actively engage in extensive White Burgundy buying for ageing. They are lovely young of course and the marketing needs to go more towards enjoying them young and possibly maybe prices coming down on the top bottlings as a result. One can only hope. Chevalier-Montrachet for $100! But the wines that are marketed to age, especially the new-wave ones from Spain, Australia, Washington State, California, new-wavey Bordeaux, sexed-up Burgundy, high-octane Chateauneuf and new-wave and oaky Northern Rhones, plus some others I am surely have forgotten should be looked at closely. These are the wines that people seem the most skeptical about. Close tabs should be kept on them through communication on the Internet (posting TN’s on verticals of wines like Pingus, Valandraud, Ball Buster, Amon-Ra, Perrot-Minnot, Scavino) and wine writers’ assessments of their ageability and styles through their platforms. Hopefully retailers and critics will be more honest with themselves and their audiences when assessing these wines.

Retailers have a vested interest in creating false dreams of a wine nirvana 10-20 years in the future where all wines lose their rough edges and all you are left with is fruit, perfume and integrated oak. As with most purchases, my only advice is caveat emptor.

What has been your experience with ageing wines, both from traditional and “new age” producers? Are you getting bang for your buck or have you had better luck drinking ‘em while they’re young?

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09;The Ageing of Wine?

PostPosted: Wed Mar 25, 2009 3:43 pm
by abreaks

A number of good points. I think the most important thing to be said here is that we, as the purchasers and end users, are ultimately responsible for our purchases and our decisions regarding what and whether or not to age. As somebody that basically never buys in case quantities (or 6-bottle, for that matter), I always err toward drinking things young. Sure, that means that I'm no stranger to the disappointment that comes with wine infanticide, but I'll take too young over too old every time.

I can't for the life of me understand how it happens that those who buy in case quantities end up with numerous bottles of over-the-hill wine. I can only conclude that they don't really care all that much or are doing a bit too much gambling. A big reason for buying certain wines in quantity is to maintain the ability to check in on them at multiple points in time, and that should be the fun part. If you're worried about maintaining solid case lots to potentially sell down the line, then you're missing the point (in my opinion, of course). Critics and retailers certainly have a hand in it, but I don't have too much sympathy for the poor sap that got the shaft on the case of the Azelia Barolo.

I think that this phenomenon is also partially symptomatic of our (i.e. Americans) relative youth and inexperience as wine-drinkers. As we learn to shed this bogus association of sophistication and prestige to knowledge of and interest in wine, maybe we'll come closer to appreciating it as it's meant to be appreciated 99% of the time - an unpretentious, everyday beverage best enjoyed at the table. I certainly don't mean any disrespect to collectors, but there are far too many people forking out far too much money to cram their cellars full of stuff that they don't even know they like just because someone told them to.

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09;The Ageing of Wine?

PostPosted: Wed Mar 25, 2009 4:20 pm
by Lyle Fass
It ultimately is the responsibility of the consumer to buy the wine, but i cannot think of anything where the average consumer lacks so much information initially and is swamped with information regarding how it "should" be done that is absolute.

There are so many people that are getting bilked with over-stuffed cellars as you say of wine they will never drink. The wine is just getting worse. Throw in the risk/variability factor of "great showings" vs "questionable" showings for old wine and it seems like its a rich man's game if you want to to do it right. That is if you can afford in the big loss over time.

Also another point is people who have massive cellars of 10,000 bottles (arbitrary number) will lose track of what they have. It is impossible for it not to happen. Imagine 50,000 bottles plus.

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09; The Aging of Wine?

PostPosted: Wed Mar 25, 2009 6:20 pm
by CorkPullerPHL

right on about the '95 clerico. I've tasted the '89, '90, '93, '95 and '98. What I found really interesting about this wine is that the character of the fruit has not changed much. What has changed is the balance and concentration of oak.

I have always felt the '93 was a great test of a winemaker. The good winemakers made really elegant, classy wines. The bad ones made thin wines who's tannins never really resolved. The Clerico is just tough and dry, like licking a pine tree. I've tasted at least a case of the '95. At least two of them were great. All the others had a varying degree of suckiness, sually possessing vanillin character with popsicle stick like texture. Then there's the '98. I keep going back to it, wondering when the fruit will calm down and it will develop some secondary aroma's. It's confusing. The 93 and 95 were dead after 10 years; the 98 tastes like it was bottled yesterday. I don't want wines like this. At least I know with a bottle of Giacamo Conterno, I better just leave it to my unborn children. . ..

I wonder about Bordeaux. . . .

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09;The Ageing of Wine?

PostPosted: Wed Mar 25, 2009 8:09 pm
by abreaks
Ageability is at the heart of one of the biggest cliches in wine - "like a fine wine, it needs time, blah, blah, blah." To a certain degree, that has taken on a life of its own and gotten hammered into people's heads, never mind that 90-whatever percent of wines are meant to be consumed within a year or two of bottling. That's probably partially to blame for this notion that only ageworthy wines are "serious" and deserving of the discriminating gourmet's attention. I don't doubt that there are some retailers and critics out there with an agenda that is furthered by encouraging excessive/unnecessary ageing, but there are probably just as many (if not more) that are fudging it or just plain getting it wrong. In fairness, it's probably also true that the calculus behind ageing estimates hasn't had ample opportunity to adjust to the new order in some regions (Bordeaux being a good example). I have to say again, though, that if anyone is to blame in this whole situation I point the finger more often than not at the naive consumer.

Your contention - "It ultimately is the responsibility of the consumer to buy the wine, but i cannot think of anything where the average consumer lacks so much information initially and is swamped with information regarding how it "should" be done that is absolute." - may well be true, but I would argue that it is the responsibility of the consumer to recognize his/her own ignorance and proceed at an appropriate pace and price point. If somebody who has little to no experience with Piedmont is told by their preferred retailer that they should absolutely put down $1500 for a case of new-wave '04 Barolo and not even bother looking at it until their newborn's 21st birthday, that's a pretty big leap of faith, no? Forecasting is forecasting - in the end, it's still essentially a guessing game. I think we might be guilty of affording a bit too much soothsayer status to the critics and retailers.

Due to my limited budget and my strict belief in a humble approach to wine acquisition, I end up drinking very little wine that has spent 10+ years in bottle. Where I've had the most success, though, has been with Chenin from the Loire - dry and sweet.

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09; The Aging of Wine?

PostPosted: Wed Mar 25, 2009 10:11 pm
by Ned Hoey
A perfect storm of history, tradition, romance, passion, desire and marketing, business, exploitation and greed. Oh and a total lack of objective reliable information. Conflicting agendas, opposing perspectives, disingenuousness, all contribute to the problem.
To express my opinions and lay out my analysis would fill a book. Amazingly as much as there is wrong in the wine world today there is an encouraging amount that's right.
This opens a door to a treatise that I'm not going to undertake but could.
Personally my experience is that authentic wines (of which there are still many) from the famous regions age and keep far longer than the critics forecast typically in their publications. Of course just as many more, if one even considers them drinkable at all, barely make it.
Hopefully, maybe we're entering a transitional period, into the post spoofulation era. Imagine.

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09; The Aging of Wine?

PostPosted: Thu Mar 26, 2009 4:30 am
by mobiusmodx
It's not just spoofed Barolo that can have these issues. I recently had a 1996 Vietti Castiglione that was dead. Stewy fruit that tasted liquored up, dry tannin, etc. I know 1996 was a vintage that produced austere wines, but Castiglione is supposed to be the more approachable wine in teh Vietti stable. Such a shame.

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09; The Aging of Wine?

PostPosted: Thu Mar 26, 2009 8:23 am
by Lyle Fass

Great reply as it is the perfect storm and if you wrote that book I would read it. Agree with you mostly but even "authentic wines" are questionable if you ask me. They have a better chance of aging gracefully and not just "surviving," but there is still a high failure rate.

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09; The Aging of Wine?

PostPosted: Thu Mar 26, 2009 8:25 am
by Lyle Fass

'96 is a strange vintage. I just had two different cuvees of some '96 Druet that were shot. I think the acid will win out and leave most of these wines, shells.

Re: Lyle Fass – Word on the Street - 3-25-09; The Aging of Wine?

PostPosted: Thu Mar 26, 2009 8:55 am
by abreaks
Shouldn't we also be talking about provenance and handling here? While things appear to be slowly improving, it's still shocking how many reputable retailers actively look the other way knowing full well that no small number of the wines they sell have been handled dubiously (or, in some cases, handle them dubiously themselves). When I first started in retail a number of years ago, I worked in a generally well-regarded shop with an emphasis on France in general and Burgundy in particular. It was not uncommon for us to get a delivery of high-end Burgundy in a non-air conditioned truck on a 90-degree July afternoon. When this would happen, the owner would instruct us to let the wines sit in the basement for a few days, wipe off the leakage and put them on the shelf. On a few other occasions, the air conditioning would go out and the temperature would sometimes get into the mid-80's on the sales floor before it was finally fixed.

True, this is just one retailer whose integrity obviously wasn't through the roof, but there are undoubtedly many others doing similar stuff. Even if there are no signs of leakage or damage and they might seem OK in their youth, these wines are compromised and will not age properly. How many of these get out there, make the rounds, and contribute to this situation?