Sam Decker is the general manager and wine director at Atria in Edgartown, where he teaches weekly wine courses. Register at mvwineschool.com. He will be regularly sharing his knowledge of wines with The Times.
British affinity for aged Bordeaux is said to arise from a cultural preoccupation with death. While this tells us little about the British — Who isn’t preoccupied with death? — it does illuminate a truism about wine: Its lifespan mirrors our own. And what better vice for existential creatures like ourselves than wine, which ages as we do?
It’s a myth that old wines are better than young ones. So is the notion that there is a single point at which a wine is best — unless, of course, you’re willing to admit you were better at 17 than you were at 25. It’s purely a matter of taste and mood. My advice is to buy at least six bottles of any wine you plan to put away, and enjoy it at every stage of its life.
In youth’s corner sits Kermit Lynch, the famous French wine importer, who wrote, “Beaujolais must be the most inspired invention in the history of wine. What a concept, downing a newborn wine that has barely left the grape.” You’d find him sitting contentedly in age’s corner as well — that’s the point: Aficionados grasp the merits of young and old wine alike. Consider an old claret — red Bordeaux to the British — which offers a valuable lesson in the mechanics of decay, with aromas evoking wilted flower petals and damp forest floor, the haunting afterglow of once-bright fruit. It’s like wandering the grounds of a ruined castle.
Of course, wine today is a far cry from what it was 100 years ago. The depletion of cellars throughout America and Europe during two World Wars and Prohibition forced a generational shift in taste. It was young wine or no wine at all. Today almost all wine is crafted to be drunk young, red or white. This can be seen in the growing trend of screw caps, embraced most ardently by New Zealand (you can now twist open more than 90 percent of this country’s wine, making corkscrews virtually obsolete there). The concept that a serious wine needs 20 to 25 years to show its greatness is no longer true. Apart from a few old-school Barolos and Bordeaux and perhaps a handful of German Rieslings, very few wines need more than a decade to unfurl.
Wine cellars may not be as common as they once were, but they won’t disappear entirely. There’s magic in the natural process of bottle aging that can’t be replicated in a laboratory.
A dry wine’s longevity is determined by the concentration of two naturally occurring grape preservatives: tannins and acid. Reds have both, while whites have only the latter. This is because tannins, which are found mainly in the skins and are responsible for wine’s astringency, are discarded prior to white-wine production. Modern cellar techniques like hyperoxidation and the use of synthetic fining agents imbue newly made wine with the kind of silky texture that would previously have taken years of bottle age to acquire. Then there’s global warming, which to viticulturists means riper grapes — more sugar, less acidity. Rising temperatures also make malolactic fermentation in all but the coldest regions a prerequisite. Here tart, apple-like malic acid is converted into the softer lactic acid of milk and yogurt. The effect is that wines like Chablis, which traditionally scorched any drinker rash enough to uncork a young bottle with lightning bolts of acidity, are now safe to approach within five years or so.
While wine has greatly improved in the last decade, there’s nothing like the pleasure of drinking a funky old wine that took years to work itself out. And encountering a newborn that’s too eager to please can be eerie. These overmanipulated wines remind me of replicants from Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner: vacant androids born into beautiful middle age with false memories of childhood. I’m thrilled to find a wine that’s drinkable when young, just so long as it’s a real, living and breathing, wine.