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You and Your Wine:
Growing Old Together

by Jonathon Alsop
March 2001


Age, aging and the age-ability of wine are without doubt the most frequently asked questions in the wine world.

Part of wine's mystery is the very notion that it ages: that wines from ancient times (the 1960s, for example) can pass history down to us as if transported to the present by a time machine owned by a mad scientist with great taste in wine. People are naturally curious if wine does age, if it improves with age, and if white and red wines age differently.

In reality, only a teeny-tiny percentage of the planet's wine is not drunk within weeks of its release to the public, so when we talk about aging wines, we're talking about only the few, the proud, the expensive reds. The kind of character excellent wine reveals when tested by age is a beautiful tribute to time itself, and a good example of how people can work to make time worthwhile.

True, reds and whites grow old at different rates. I prefer most white wine brand new: young and vibrant and full of fruit and flowers. Personally, I prefer most red wine this way too, but most red wines will at least survive five or seven years and still taste OK.

Youth is the first thing that goes, of course, and I believe that's what makes a white wine delicious. When it comes to aging, white wine is all about the flower and fruit; red wine is about the skins, seeds, and structure.

Most of the time, however, if you nip into your local shop to pick up the odd $12 merlot or $10 chardonnay, you buy the current vintage regardless. Red wine typically takes more time to make than white wine, so the current vintage years for reds always run a little behind the whites, heightening the distinction.

As a rule of thumb, seven years is a decent age for red wines. Younger is fine too, older is a judgment call.

Wine does age, if you let it. Whether it improves with age is another question entirely.

One way to think about how wine ages is to imagine a pond full of water. This is a young wine that's full of fruit flavor.

As the wine ages, the water level drops; the fruit recedes and reveals textures and details resting beneath the surface.

Sometimes, these details are a lovely little submerged island, or a dramatic outcropping of stone. Sometimes, they're a 1972 Chevy Nova with a body in the trunk. Hopefully the former.

A couple of years ago, wine lover Jack Fedigan, my best friend's father, showed up for Thanksgiving weekend, and we all got together post-turkey for a big red meat meal to showcase a couple of ancient Bordeaux he'd brought with him from his cellar.

We started with a 1967 Clos Rene from Pomerol that was beautifully aged, clear and ruby-colored with soft fruit flavors and light chewy tannin.

Next up, the 1966 Chateau Cos Laboury from St.-Estephe was a year older but amazingly tasted 15 years younger. It was filled with bright fruit and lively, prickly tannin that showed no signs of softening.

"My God," I said, "they're so old, but they're still alive." Jack, in his seventies, gave me a little sneer. "That's the whole point," he said.

That night, we decided conclusively that wine does improve with age: the older we get, the more we like it.

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