All my life, I’d heard that wine gets better with age. The myth is perpetuated through the exorbitant prices people pay for certain bottles of aged wine. The truth is, some wines do improve with age, while others reach their peak within 2-3 years. We decided to find out for ourselves when my parents stumbled across a couple of bottles of wine they had bought in the mid-1980s. This didn’t merely make them “aged,” but downright old: 30 years is a long time to wait to open a bottle of wine. Would it still be drinkable, let alone good? We were soon to find out, and turned the whole experience into a food challenge: determining whether wine really does improve with age.
The ancient Greeks and Romans prized aged wines, often storing them in sealed earthenware jugs where they would keep for many years. After the fall of the Roman Empire, wines were paler, light bodied, and lower in alcohol content. These did not age well and would turn to vinegar after a few months, so old bottles were steeply discounted. In the 17th century the cork and bottle were invented, and wines were being produced with a higher alcohol content, two factors leading to improved preservation and aging.
Today, it is estimated that only 10% of red wines and 5% of white wines improve enough to taste better after 5 years of aging, and only the top 1% of all wine tastes better when it’s a decade old. Wines with the best potential for aging have low pH levels and a high amount of tannins, meaning reds such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.
We were not really looking forward to this challenge. We had my parents over to participate, since they are pretty knowledgeable about wine. They had opened old bottles before that had gone sour and tasted like vinegar. Our hopes were not high, putting it lightly.
The wines we tried: a 1985 Hangtown Red California Red Wine, and a J. Lohr California Red Wine that had been purchased in South Dakota sometime between 1983-1986. So, two 30 year-old bottles of generic red wine awaited our palates. Right on!
We ran into trouble almost immediately. Both corks splintered when we tried to remove them. To properly store wine, you are supposed to lay the bottle on its side and give it a quarter turn every couple of months. These bottles were sitting upright in a box for decades, and so the corks had long ago dried out. This can lead to oxygen leaking into the bottle, leading to an off-taste (at best) and mold (at worst). Still, we didn’t let a little thing like crumbling corks stop us. We soldiered on, eventually prying one cork out and pushing the second cork into the bottle. Luckily, we had a strainer. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
We poured the wine into glasses. For comparison and contrast, we had a “fresh” bottle of wine, as well. The first thing we noticed was the difference in color. The “new” wine was bright, almost purple in color, while the older wines had faded somewhat to a brownish-red color.
Now it was time for the ultimate test: the tasting! Everybody seemed reluctant, so I picked up the glass of J. Lohr California Red and took a deep swallow.
Fortunately, not only had it not oxidized or turned to vinegar, it was actually pretty good. For a cheap red wine that was 30 years old, anyway. It tasted to me of prunes. The others followed suit – Tara and my parents – and we all agreed. We were pleasantly surprised.
The second glass, the 1985 Hangtown Red, was pretty similar. I thought this one had more of a smokiness to it, but it was certainly drinkable, if not delicious. Again, everybody took a sip or two. Again, we were all surprised.
“You know,” I said, “If you were trapped on a deserted island and these two bottles of wine washed up on shore, you’d be thanking your lucky stars,” I commented.
“You’d be smashing them open by the neck to drink them,” my dad countered.
So, there you go. I don’t know if this challenge was the exception or the rule, but our well-aged red wines – while not necessarily improving in flavor – didn’t really suffer all that much. In fact, I ended up finishing the entire glass of J. Lohr. I’ll admit: I actually liked it!
Robert Parker, quoted in a Wine Times magazine interview (September/October 1989), had this to say about aging wine:
“. . . how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.
“If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that’s an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] ‘dry out,’ it’s debatable then whether that’s a great vintage.
“Most people are hung up on wines that are brawny and tannic. One thing I’m certain about in the wine business is that wines are often too tannic. People perceive that all that tannin is going to melt away and this gorgeous fruit will emerge. But that rarely ever happens. The good wines in good vintages not only have the depth but also the precociousness. I used to think some of the softer ones wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, but they get more and more interesting. Most California wines are not only overly acidified, but the type of tannins they have in most of their Cabernets — whether the vines are too immature, the climate is different, whatever — are too hard, too astringent. And you see that even in the older ones. . . .”
Master Sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson had this to say about aging wine:
“QUESTION: How long should you age a wine?
“ANDREA ANSWERS: Maybe you remember the Paul Masson ads that proudly proclaimed, ‘We will sell no wine before its time.’ But how long should you age a wine?
“A commonly-quoted trade statistic states that the average American consumer ages their wine 17 minutes — the amount of time it takes to get the bottle home and the cork pulled! I don’t have proof, but I wouldn’t doubt it. And for most wines, that’s perfectly appropriate. Ninety-five percent of wines on the market are meant to be enjoyed within one two three years of bottling, while they are young and fresh.
“The other five percent or so are wines that can actually improve with aging (otherwise, what’s the point?). These major categories are the best aging candidates:
• Red Burgundy (top estates)
• Sauternes & other dessert wines
• California Cabernet Sauvignon
• Red Bordeaux (Chateaux estates)
• vintage Port
“In excellent vintages, red Burgundy hits its stride at 5-7 years’ age. The best Sauternes peak at around 7 to 10 years, as do great California Cabernets. Top red Bordeaux just begin to show their greatness at 10 years (and in some cases 20!), and vintage Port is believed to be “ready” finally at 20 years and older. Alcohol, acidity, tannin and sugar are wine’s natural preservatives. The best agers typically have a high proportion of at least some of these components — the more the better for a long aging period.
“Of course, the Golden Rule is: drink the wine whenever you’d like to. It’s your personal taste that counts. And no one wants to pass up the opportunity to taste a great wine — even if it’s technically ‘too young’!
“Here’s a great saying about wine aging that my mentor Kevin Zraly loves to quote:
” ‘The English drink their wines too old, because they like to impress people by showing them all the dusty old bottles in their cellars. The French drink their wines too young because they’re afraid the Socialist government will take them away. And Americans drink their wine at just the right time — because they don’t know any better!’
“Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?
Better to drink a maturing wine on its way “up,” than on its way “down.”
And don’t forget the observation:
“There are no good wines, only good bottles.”
Thank you for this detailed and informative response, Bob. I learned a lot. Mainly: we lucked out that these old wines were still drinkable, let alone not half bad!
One of the “hats” I wear in the wine industry is organizing collectors’s wine cellars.
It pains me to see “treasures” neglected and abused through misstorage.
I “inherit” those bottles from my clients. I open and sample them. Ugh! Oxidized prune juice.
One has to embrace the “Theory of Capacity” philosophy of the late Len Evans.
New York Times articles:
“Drink ’em up!”
(Another “hat” I wear is wine educator. I know from first-hand experience that too few wines truly “improve” with bottle age past a decade: http://www.kirktech.com/bob_henry/)
I’m sure David would have enjoyed your wine tasting.