People are always asking me when they should drink this or that wine.
I wish I had an easy answer for them, like, “Oct. 29, 2024, at 7:18 p.m.” They want specificity and certitude, not a lecture. But the question of when to drink a wine is very complicated.
First, it depends on how mature the person likes his wines. It’s not as if a wine is terrible now and will remain terrible until it hits a Magic Moment of transcendent loveliness, after which it once again descends back into terribleness. Wine doesn’t behave like that.
Most wine is fine to drink as soon as it’s released, even if it’s ageable. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to open a young Latour or Barolo. It’s really not a good idea at all. But you can, and the Aging Police won’t come after you. Certainly, the majority of top California Cabernets, Syrahs and Pinots are ready to drink soon after release.
But if a wine is balanced, and you cellar it properly, it will “age.” What does “aging” mean? The wine changes, gradually over time. The tannins may drop out as sediment, leaving the wine softer and clearer and letting the sweetness of the fruit emerge. The fruit itself changes, evolving from “primary” characteristics of fresh fruits to “secondary” ones of dried fruits, herbs, earth, nuts and flowers. This process can go on for a very long time before the wine is “too old.”
But what does “too old” mean? Reasonable people will disagree. I once read (in Michael Broadbent? Could have been Hugh Johnson) that the French used to think the British liked their wines “with the first blush of death.” This was an implied criticism. The French supposedly liked their Bordeaux younger and fresher than the Brits, who kept theirs cellared for decades. Neither the French nor the British was right or wrong on this; it’s a matter of preference.
Another thing is that we usually talk about wines in the abstract, when in reality, we drink them with food. And, if you’re into the pairing thing (which is often over-preciousized, but that’s another conversation), it’s important to understand that the age of a wine conditions the best foods to eat with it. For example, a young, robust Napa Valley Cabernet can be great with a complex dish–say, char-broiled steak, with a wine-reduction sauce and sautéed Portobello mushrooms and sweet potato crisps, or the same steak in a Gorgonzola cheese sauce. But if you have, say, a 20-year old Cab that’s clear and mellow, I’d drop the sauce and stick with a plain steak, maybe with a brown butter sauce. An old wine is a delicate wine that can get crowded out by overly elaborate food.
You’d think these would be easy points to convey yet most consumers–especially those with a little knowledge of wine–still believe in the Magic Moment. Maybe it’s the romanticist in us, or the mystic: we believe in fairy tale endings, when the Prince kisses the sleeping Princess who, after long years of slumber, opens her eyes. They embrace, and live happily ever after.
But life isn’t a fairy tale, and wine seldom has such perfect endings. And think of this: How many times have you enjoyed an older wine, only to have someone you’re with say they don’t like it? (Or vice versa.) So this is eye of the beholder stuff. We haven’t even talked about bottle variation and storage conditions, which obviously are critical. Finally: the expectation of a “Magic Moment” has probably led to more sadness and disappointment among wine drinkers than anything else. They cellar something for 10 or 15 years, anticipate popping the cork and soaring into wine ecstasy. Then the moment comes, and the wine is dull. We writers and critics have got to do a better job disabusing consumers of their belief in the Magic Moment. It does no one any good.