The Taste Of An Older Wine
Posted 22 July 2020
by Dia Grigoriou
An estimate reveals that 90% of wines are supposed to be consumed within one year, while 99% should be consumed within five! For example, most dry white wines belong in the 90% category while many reds fit nicely into the 99% category.
And those in the 1-2%, at least the well-established houses known to produce wines that are age-worthy, are few. A fine Bordeaux, a sought-after red Burgundy, an ambiguous Barolo, an underrated Rioja Gran Reserva, a luscious Sauternes and of course the kings of longevity Vintage Port and Madeira.
Before exploring the taste of the above when aged, we will try to explain a little about the science and chemistry shaping up the flavour characteristics that contribute to a wine’s longevity.
One of the first things to consider is the grape composition; thicker skinned, small berried grapes contain more tannins which are phenolic compounds found on grape skins, stems and pips and are in fact a natural preservative in wines. Think of your young Bordeaux or Barolo or Vintage Port and the drying sensation they convey in the early stages of their life. This sensation means a surplus of tannin and that is the reason these wines seem to taste bitter when young. It is all chemistry really; tannins bind with proteins that absorb your saliva, making your mouth dry as if you were eating a green banana.
This dry taste, known as “astringency” in the wine lexicon, does fade away with time as the tannins react and bind with sugars and acids in the wine forming heavy compounds that settle down, hence altering a wine’s colour, taste, aroma and texture.
Oxygen plays its part too. Gradual, controlled exposure to oxygen using oak helps preserve the phenolics and aromas contributing to their transformation into more complex taste characteristics. On the other hand, extreme and sudden, high levels of uncontrolled exposure to oxygen can negatively impact a wine’s colour, aroma and taste either by causing lighter and/or brown colour or affecting its flavour by neutralising the fruit components, making them seem bitter and encouraging the development of acetic acid bacteria and increasing ethanol, which gives a flat sherry-like flavour.
Another contributing factor in a wine’s longevity is vintage variation. Adverse weather conditions during the shaping of grape berries or during harvest can have a detrimental effect on a wine’s longevity simply because the tannins may not be ripe enough, the fruit may not be as concentrated, the acids may be unbalanced and either too high or too low. These are factors that will shape the future of a newly made wine which is destined for long term survival.
And of course, let us not forget the winemakers, the unseen stars. Building these wines to withstand time, layer upon layer of colour and flavour extraction for maximum fruit concentration and future protection. Making sure the wine is not entirely filtered thus keeping chemical components in the bottle that will help towards developing its complex flavour profile in the future. Leaving the wine in oak barrels to soften and gradually expose it to oxygen and providing the best practices and materials that will aid to its future preservation.
So, what does an older wine taste like? How does a Bordeaux, a Barolo, a Sauternes and a vintage port develop over time?
In its youth, a Bordeaux will display a deep red or ruby colour with concentrated fresh dark fruit characteristics such as blackberry, blackcurrant and liquorice, blossom, subtle toast and vanilla. It will be tannic with a drying sensation. With age, the colour will turn from ruby to garnet, the fruit will develop from fresh to stewed or even dried. Tertiary flavour characteristics such as truffles, dried floral petals, leather, cigar box, forest floor and spices will develop. The tannins now bound and fallen to the bottom of the bottle will have resolved and softened and the wine will need decanting to remove these solids.
A young Barolo will be lighter red in colour than a Bordeaux and it will display aromatics of fresh sour cherry, red and black cherry, fresh rose petals, clay pot and anise with a high acid and a tannic palate whereas an older Barolo will have an even lighter garnet/ brick colour, quite pale actually, with dried sour cherry and plum fruit. The perfume can be hauntingly beautiful - reminiscent of dried rose petals, tar, wet leaves, smoky with mushroom undertones and cinnamon and clove spices. The tannins alongside acidity will still be present, perhaps less aggressive than in its youth, and will continue supporting the wine’s evolution.
Colour evolution of a Barolo wine. On the left a 2015 Barolo Massolino Margheria, on the righta 1964 Barolo Pio Cesare. Photo credits and many thanks to Jon_love-Wine for the 2015and to Anthony Pieri for the 1964, both on Instagram.
A young Sauternes wine will show pale gold colour with bags of white-flesh fruit, apricots, honey and botrytis glycerine flavours such as beeswax and ginger and zesty acidity which cuts through the sweetness. As Sauternes approach their 3rd or 4th decade the best examples improve dramatically with the colour turning to medium, sometimes even deep gold with apricot jam, mango, honey hints still present, white blossom, a nutty note, which is a typical characteristic of the influence of botrytis and a creamy smooth mouthfeel.
Colour changes from bright yellow to dark copper as Sauternes ages. Photo credit "Last Bottle Wines"
The most dramatic transformation occurs with Vintage Port which is one of the longest-lived wines. Rightly so, as the fortification and the higher alcohol content offer some protection. These wines start at the deepest of red or ruby colours with opulent aromas of dark forest fruit, mint, chocolate and violets and evolve slowly to expand into dried cherries and currants, spices like cinnamon and clove, earthy notes of mushroom and undergrowth, and nutty flavours of almonds and walnuts. The colour of a vintage port recedes after some time and towards their 4th or 5th decade they appear to be pale garnet rather than impenetrable red.
Colour evolution of a vintage port. Vintages 2016, 1994, 1963, 1934
Those who try vintage wines have a mild and considerate approach, each bottle is certainly given a chance to grow and is not disregarded immediately upon opening - it is treated with respect. Respect for the techniques the wine-maker used especially pre ‘80s; for the lack of controlled temperature; the lack of vineyard and winery mechanisation; respect of the hardships and labour involved; respect and contemplation of the history and a glimpse, if you like, of the era and the area the bottle came from with all that it may entail, socially, politically, historically.
The bottom line when it comes to tasting aged wine could not be summarised better by Jan-Erik Paulson in one of Jancis Robinson’s articles: “If you are set out to look for faults, you’re bound to find something to complain about. The point is to appreciate their elegance and complexity- and to think of the romantic notion of what was happening when the wine was made”.