The mystique of age

Not all wine gets better with age and even the wines that are said to age well go through changes that not all tasters would deem an improvement. Lee Royle, Jacques Scott’s wine marketing manager, Sergio Serrano, the company’s senior wine sales and marketing associate, and marketing assistant Jo Austin sat down over lunch at the Lobster Pot restaurant to discuss the basics of wine aging.

Most people know that some wines get better with age, but many don’t realise that only a small amount of the world’s wine production actually benefits from aging. Which ones will age takes a little knowledge of wine, Royle said.

“It depends on a lot of factors; the vineyard location and aspects of the soil, the climate and grape variety… just in the vineyard alone you have those contributing factors,” he said, adding that winemaking processes will also play a role in whether a wine will benefit from aging.

White wines

White wines generally don’t age as well as red wines. Astringent substances called tannins, found in the grape skins, form the foundation on which red wines can age. However, white wines are fermented without the grape skins and have little or no tannins. As a result, most white wines produced in the world will degrade to virtually undrinkable within five years of vintage. Royle said that is why most everyday white wines sold will have recent vintages.

“They’re two to three years old at the most,” he said.

Higher quality white wines from certain grape varieties like Chardonnay can get better with age, but even with most of those, five to eight years is as long as they can go, Royle said.

“Wines with more acidity have more potential to age,” he said, adding that acid acts as a preservative.

High-quality, high-acid white wines in France, like some white Burgundy and Chenin Blanc, and top quality Rieslings from Germany, have the potential to age for a decade or more. But that doesn’t necessarily mean every taster would consider them better. Although aged white wine flavours are more complex, those who enjoy fruity, light and crisp white wines might not approve.

The complexity in flavour of aged white wines comes from it coming in contact with the little amount of air in the bottle, a process Royle said is called micro-oxidation. White wine will become darker as a result of this oxidation, but as long as there isn’t too much oxidation – like that which could be caused by a bad cork – the wine can still be improving.

There are also differences in aromas of older white wines.

“With younger wines, you normally get primary, fruit-driven aromas,” said Royle. “As wines age, you start getting secondary, bouquet aromas like spice, leather, cedar box and earthy tones.”

California Chardonnay

New World white wines aren’t known for their aging abilities, but some California Chardonnay’s definitely benefit from a little cellaring. To prove the point, Royle poured two California Chardonnay’s – 2008 Sonoma-Cutrer from Sonoma Coast ($26.95) and 2003 Mayacamas ($41.95) from the Mount Veeder area of Napa Valley.

The difference in the age was easy to tell by smell.

“The Sonoma-Cutrer is more powerful on the nose and you can definitely smell the oak. You get oak and spice and a little bit of heat,” he said, the latter term referring to the slight burning sensation caused by alcohol in the mouth. “The Mayacamas is much softer, which is what it is supposed to be like.”

When it came to pairing foods with the young and old wines, the older Mayacamas paired well with the delicate flavour of the scallops – Lobster Pot’s version of Coquilles St. Jacques – while the younger and fruitier Sonoma-Cutrer had the power and body to stand up to the shrimp stir-fry in a light curry sauce.

Serrano especially liked the Mayacamas and noted that it could even benefit from decanting, something normally reserved for red wines.

“There’s nothing wrong with asking for a white wine to be decanted if its something like this old,” he said.

To further illustrate the aging potential in the better California white wines, the Lobster Pot donated to the tasting two bottles of Far Niente Chardonnay from the vintages of 2005 and 2009. As one of the top wine producers in Napa Valley, Far Niente’s Chardonnays are considered more ageable than most California white wines. Even though the vintages weren’t that far apart in the two wines tasted, the darker colour and increased complexity of the older wine were already apparent.

Red wines

Some ageable red wines have become investment commodities, but these wines represent only a small portion of the red wines produced in the world, and the large majority of them are from Bordeaux in France.

Much of the world’s red wine, just like white wine, is made to be consumed within three years of vintage, and even many of the better red wines should be consumed within five years of vintage.

Better quality wines made from certain grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir grown in Burgundy,can age longer, but even most of these have an age ceiling of no more than 20 years.

Only the truly great red wines can still be marvellously drinkable for longer than that, and an aged great wine will cost thousands -if not ten of thousands – of dollars to purchase.

Most red wines that age well – like Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo – rely on firm tannins derived from the thick skins of their grapes to provide the structure on which they can age. Ageable red wines made from thin skin grapes, like Pinot Noir, rely more on high acidity to make them age well.

Changes

The changes that occur in tannic red wines are some of the easiest to detect when tasting older wines against younger wines. The harsh, astringent tannins – the compounds that cause a dry, puckering sensation in the mouth – gradually soften. The fruit tastes give way to more subtle and complex flavours. The colour of red wine fades as it ages, taking on a paler, reddish-brown colour.

In addition, as red wines age, the tannins will bond with the acid in the wine forming particles that will drop to the bottom as sediment. Sediment in wine is normal result of aging and does not mean the wine is spoiled. However, the sediment should be filtered out before serving if possible.

To show the differences age has on red wines, Royle poured two Napa Valley Bordeaux blends made by French winemaker Christian Moueix. The 2005 Dominus ($94.99) was markedly different that the 1999 ($92.95), with the former being much more tannic and fruity. Both, however, paired well with the herb-crusted lamb-pops served by the Lobster Pot.

Royle said young wines could usually be differentiated from old wines just by looking at it in the glass.

“If the colour extends all the way to the rim, it’s usually a sign of a young wine,” he said, noting that with older wines, the wine’s rim takes on a more brick-red colour.

“Dominus is a perfect example of that,” he said.

Moueix makes Dominus to age and the 1999 was definitely showing the brilliance of age. There comes a time, however, when all wines reach their peak quality and then, if not consumed, start degrading in quality. Most experts agree that is better to drink a wine a little too young than one that has passed its peak and is a little too old.

Storage

Aging fine wine for years takes up space and requires a temperature/humidity controlled environment, which is why aged wines – where available – are more expensive that young wines. Most retailers only carry recent vintages, but some – like Jacques Scott – will carry older vintages of certain wines. Since there is a demand in high-end restaurants for aged wines, wholesalers will often buy large lots of good vintages for aging and keep them in storage.

Online wine retailers, which are becoming increasingly popular in places like the United States, will also sell some aged wines.

Many private collectors will try to age their own wine, but this should only be done in temperature-controlled environments like cellars in homes in northern climates. Because the high water table makes most cellars unpractical in Cayman, fine wines must be kept in specially-designed wine rooms or wine chillers. Ideally, wines should be stored at a temperature of 55 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. It is also important that the storage temperature doesn’t fluctuate too much and that the wine is generally kept in a dark place, away from direct sunlight.

For those unsure whether a particular bottle of wine is worthy of aging, the price point will tell a lot. Virtually no wines sold under $30 are made for aging, and most ageable wines will cost double that or more. In addition, most wineries have web sites now that will state the aging potential of their various ageable wines. If no aging potential is listed, that means drink up now!

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