What I mean by the title is that when it comes to wine, for the most part there is no such thing as a silly question. Many years ago before I even considered studying wine, I used to think, ‘How tough can it be to understand this? It’s just a bunch of fermented grape juice. Simple’. Later when I began to get serious about wine I understood just how wrong my sophomoric attitude was.
Wine is indeed a very technically complicated subject and the deeper I ventured into the field the more I realized how little we actually know about wine. Scientifically, the collective knowledge has increased exponentially only in the past two or three decades. Except for the wineries of the world that have been in existence for centuries, in times past, winemakers were really just farmers who happened to also make wine. They may have had some experience with soil and plants but if a farmer’s wine turned out good in any particular vintage, it was mostly due to blind luck, not depth of knowledge or science. We’re just now getting caught up on a basic understanding of how it all works and many mysteries remain. From the weather, to the inner workings of vines, to the chemical reactions of virtually everything that happens in the winemaking and aging process, from bud break to glass is plethora of events waiting to go wrong.
When someone begins with the phrase, ‘this is a silly question’, most of the time it really isn’t at all silly. Nearly anyone that fields questions in public forums such as Wine Spectator or Local Wine Events.com will tell you that the most asked question goes something like this: I found an old bottle of 1973 Château Dos Equis Reserva in my late great grandfather’s coat closet. Is it worth a lot of money? Those questions often do seem silly to me because they are not about wine at all, they are questions about, did I strike it rich? The odds of an average person stumbling across a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild 1875 or a Château d’Yquem 1811 that has been stored in complete darkness at 55 degrees Fahrenheit in 70% humidity are infinitesimally small. I would dare to guess that the odds of winning the lotto once a year for twenty years in a row is more likely. But real questions about wine are not silly and I encourage everyone to ask them, no matter how simple they may seem. All of us start somewhere in our pursuit of wine knowledge and should never be embarrassed in our quest for more information or understanding. I am inquisitive myself and I never intend to stop asking questions.
I was recently asked a very non-silly question and wanted to elaborate with this post because, although I could provide a simple one-sentence answer, like most things concerning wine, we have to dig deeper to arrive at a true understanding. The question from someone I respect and has a good amount of wine experience is: Why do Bordeaux reds seem to drink well long after they are opened? Some Bordeaux red wines, even a week after I’ve opened them will taste just fine, certainly not as good as the first or second day, but often I find New World wines undrinkable after two or three days at the most. The simple answer is that Bordeaux ages so well, whether in an opened bottle for four or five days, or in an unopened bottle for twenty or thirty years, because of it’s structure.
If we break down the major components of red wine, today’s wine is roughly 80% water, 15% alcohol, and 5% ‘other’ elements. Those other elements are a very important part of a wine’s structure and include acidity, glycerol, and phenolic compounds, (there are small amounts of other elements in this 5% like sulfites, that are not considered part of the structure of wine). Wine phenols consist of, in part, tannins from grape skins, grape seeds, sometimes grape stalks, and oak barrels if used, along with color pigments also derived from the grapes’ skins. Structure is due mostly to that 5% of other elements and within the context of modern winemaking structure is, by design, added or diminished depending on the wine company, their market goals, and even philosophy about wine. And as with almost any discussion about wine, it all starts in the vineyard.
The value of vineyard management and also low yielding old vines becomes obvious when considering the resulting concentration of phenols due to a higher skin to pulp ratio of small berries, thereby increasing not only depth of color but increasing tannins. Although the ‘type’ of wine determined by each winery is based on many factors that are outside the scope of this post, goals are set for vineyard management technics that are most likely to meet the needs of the winery, which includes how each finished wine will be structured. After vineyard considerations, it’s up to the winemaker to determine the wine’s course and its outcome.
Tannins are a crucial component of red wine because of its superior properties as an antioxidant. Really this post would not be complete without at least mentioning oxygen, which is an element that is ironic because it is both necessary for wine’s production and aging, yet oxygen can also completely irreversibly damage wine. In other words, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. During the initial barrel aging process that takes place after fermentation, cellar masters will top off each barrel with wine to eliminate air that finds its way into the container mostly due to very slow evaporation (the missing wine is often referred to as the angels share). The wine is exposed to minute amounts of oxygen during barrel aging through microscopic gaps in the barrels’ staves and even the cells of the wood. This small amount of oxygen facilitates the wine’s development until the winemaker deems the wine ready to be bottled. To leave air in the barrel will eventually cause the wine to oxidize, of course producing a flawed wine. Most wines are racked to separate the clear juice from sediment, which exposes it to even more oxygen. In many châteaux in Bordeaux, these topping up and racking processes are a daily task that takes several burly men about three months from start to finish to get through all of the barrels. By the time the last barrel is topped up, it’s time to start at the beginning again.
Aging wine in bottles only differs in that topping up does not occur again (unless a special old bottle is taken to the winery for the sake of preservation, a very rare occasion). In the bottle molecules of oxygen reach the wine by moving up in molecular sized spaces between the cork and the neck of the glass bottle. Again, this is a good thing and it is how wine evolves with age. Eventually, an age worthy wine that is tannic when bottled will have those tannins attach to the color compounds in red wine until they are so heavy, they drop out of solution, which is how aged wine softens and becomes rounder over time. Be warned, however, that not every tannic young wine will improve with age, simply because it has a lot of tannins present. In fact most will not improve with age unless it was made for aging. Having an out of balance overly tannic wine and having a wine with good structure are two different things.
But here’s the answer to the question: not every winery wants to make age worthy wines and in fact, most so-called ‘new world’ wineries intentionally create the opposite of age worthy wines. Most new world wines, which include California, take extreme measures to ensure their wines are drinkable upon release or close to it. Technologies employed such as micro-oxygenation equipment, reverse osmosis, and spinning cone columns all manipulate wines in many ways in which the public generally is unaware. Yes, there are these technologies used in Europe as well but probably to a much lesser degree than new world wine regions (most wineries don’t like to talk about this openly). The desired effect is to soften tannins, reduce acidity from the effects of a cold vintage, manage alcohol levels from very ripe or overripe grapes, remove water to concentrate the wine, add acidity in hot vintages (doesn’t require machinery, per se), and take away all of the potential harshness of wine so it is nearly palatable to baby kittens. In this age of instant gratification who wants to spend a small fortune on wine, only to have to wait for fifteen years or more to drink it? The net result of all of this is that many of the elements that protect wine over time, are now extracted from the wine to meet market and commercial expectations – a very sad state of affairs to me.
Good quality Bordeaux will age well and with that age will often develop wonderful secondary and tertiary flavor and aroma profiles with nuances that cannot be found in younger wines, all the while softening and becoming rounder and fuller with time, at least for a while. The aging process is only possible due to the wine’s structure. Remove that structure and there is no protection available for a wine to fend off the inevitable effects of oxygen. I have experienced inexpensive new world wines that were completely flat and beginning to oxidize in twenty or thirty minutes after being opened. The first couple of sips had some life but after that, the air just deconstructed the wine as it sat in my glass. One of the most important issues of removing a wine’s structure is that it creates a sort of homogenization that ends up tasting just like every other new world wine out there, all lacking individuality and character, indistinguishable from all the others including its grape variety, vintage, and region/country of origin; just another cola!
I have read with horror on numerous occasions, usually on Cellartracker, where someone will open a bottle of twenty five year old Bordeaux and decant it for 8 hours, or 24 hours, or three days and then complain about what a disappointment the wine was. Of course at that age there is usually not much structure left so the wine becomes easily oxidized and is unpleasant to drink. Conversely, there are those that open very young Bordeaux upon release and experience its harshness of tannins and acidity and then fail to understand how anyone could enjoy Bordeaux. In vintages like 2009 and 2010, many wines from the Bordeaux region can be drunk young and thoroughly enjoyed, or they can be aged as well, but it is a rare vintage that allows this to happen; it is only coincidental that two years in a row produced such amazing wines. But as a general rule, most good quality Bordeaux (Classified Bordeaux) should be aged for 6 – 8 years upon release and the best of them such as First Growth Bordeaux should not be touched for at least 15 years.
The short answer to the question is that Bordeaux lasts longer in an open bottle than a new world wine because it has structure providing antioxidant properties that new world wines have removed. I know. Way too much information, but I didn’t want to be a slacker and just dole the short version. Thanks Dennis – and every reader should feel free to send me wine questions anytime.
Photo: Being inside the cellars of Second Growth Bordeaux Château Cos d’Estournel was a great pleasure and although they didn’t open any of these vintages for me (I didn’t expect them to), they served up very wonderful wines nonetheless. It’s questionable how many of these in the photo, if any, are still drinkable – even great wines from great cellars will not last forever.