Are Mature Wines Out To Pasture?

If many wines today are delicious when young and fruity, why not drink them like that? Why wait years for the development of extra flavors we may not like? The
answer: Because youth is not everything.

Can you imagine this happening to you? You’re in a fancy restaurant, and the sommelier is approaching the table with a revered bottle of something famous and old. He pours. You taste carefully—this wine costs big bucks. And though your taste buds assure you that the wine is not compromised in any way, they cannot help but add: “No, I am not used to this. It tastes strange.”

It happened to me recently, at a dinner in Burgundy. We were in the Clos de Vougeot, the chateau in the middle of the vineyard which is the Burgundian equivalent of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or Saint Peter’s in Rome. A 40-year-old bottle from a major négociant was poured as the climax to the evening. Awed murmurs ran around the table of expectant diners. Yet when we drank—when I drank—the wine just tasted, well, old. It was just as a 40-year-old Burgundy should taste, full of mushroom flavors. But I didn’t like it.

The same thing happened to me soon after, during en primeur week in Bordeaux this year. I had the chance to lunch at a classed-growth chateau. A 1983 vintage of the wine was offered around the table, the 20-year-old predecessor of the 2003 vintage which was being tasted that week. It was a classic vintage, overshadowed by the preceding 1982, but great Bordeaux at the time. Again, the wine was fine, full of complex flavors, but, again, I found it hard to enjoy.

These wines were both difficult to appreciate. They were like an art film rather than a blockbuster, or like an ancient manuscript that you can admire from a distance but not pick up and read. And they were further removed from the everyday reality of wine drinking by the circumstances and the surroundings.

Have our tastebuds changed? Can we no longer appreciate old wines?

Regular wine tasters spend most of their days evaluating young, fruity wines. Most consumers spend most of their drinking lives enjoying young, fruity wines. These wines have become our standard, our benchmark. So both wine professionals and consumers are not exposed as often to old wines as was the previous generation of wine lovers.
When wine centered on Bordeaux, Burgundy and vintage Port, and there were fewer wine consumers, there was enough old wine to go around. Today, we are more likely to drink Australian or Chilean, let alone Californian. And when we drink European wines, we drink the latest vintage, or at least the next-to-last vintage.

And what we find is fruit. I talked with Thibaut Marian of Maison Chanson Père et Fils in Beaune, Burgundy. “We taste more and more young wines,” he said. “It’s hard to adjust to wines which have less fruit and more complex flavors.”

The fruit in today’s wines is better than in young wines of 20, 30 years ago. Riper fruit at harvest, better vineyard and winery techniques (and better vine clones) have all seen to that. We couldn’t have drunk young wines so easily in the past. Today we can, and we can enjoy them.

That was brought home to me as I tasted Burgundy’s fabled 2002 vintage. I asked Frédéric Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin about the sensational fruitiness of the young reds. “The fruit in the wines will certainly appeal to consumers,” he agreed. “But that is only part of the wine. To reveal their full terroir and become whole, they need to age.”

But if the wine is so darn delicious when it’s young and fruity, why not drink it like that? Why wait years for the development of extra flavors we may not like? If winemakers can produce tasty young fruit, let’s welcome that and pull the cork.

But of course there is an answer to the question. Because youth is not everything. It’s one-dimensional, just like teenagers. Who hasn’t been attracted to the older man or woman because they were more interesting, had more to say?

As we evaluate wines, we ought to look beyond the fruit, and go for the depths. If our tastebuds have changed, we need to get back into the practice of appreciating older wines. If a wine is potentially great, then its greatness can only be realized with age.
Here is my suggestion to anybody who buys some of the great, but young, wines that we review in the Buying Guide. Don’t buy just one bottle, buy two or more; if it’s a case, buy two. Drink one now, and enjoy the fruit. And then put the other away for 10 years at least (I’m talking great wine here, not a midweek supper wine) and enjoy a completely different experience.

Let’s resolve to give our tastebuds some different sensations. Let’s teach them to appreciate age.

Published on June 1, 2004