One of the most enduring myths of red wine is that the older it gets, the better it is.
Where this erroneous line comes from is buried in history, but it’s likely no true wine lover came up with it. Most wine lovers know that certain wines age nicely for decades, but most red wines are best within a few years of their vintage, if not immediately.
Besides, aging wine is a task that amateurs shouldn’t try without understanding the details of the game.
My guess is that non-wine lovers, hearing praise being heaped on bottles of 20-year-old red Bordeaux, assume that all older red wine is better than the young stuff. In fact, I believe that wines that might be better with age also may be enjoyed while young. Just decant the wine for an hour and watch it improve.
A lot of red wines are rated by so-called experts on a scale of weight and power. The heavier the wine, the better it is, they tell us. And thus the implication that it will age for decades. Such assumptions have more exceptions than you’d believe.
Often, wines that are powerful when released can improve with a little time in the bottle. But there is no guarantee they’ll age well for long periods.
A century ago, the main reason French and Italian red wines were aged was that they weren’t drinkable when young. Many of these wines were coarse and unbalanced. People found that by holding them for a while, some of the bad stuff dissipated; roughness would diminish.
Today’s red wines are better in that respect. Most young, fruity wines that are awkward and astringent when young improve with a few additional years in the bottle, but some may simply get old and tired. Once the vibrancy of youth flees, a wine can be unappealing.
Before wine quality improved, around the 1970s, many bad wines were made. In the bad old days of Bordeaux, many vintages (notably in the 1930s and early 1940s) were terrible. Rain before harvest produced wines that were lackluster when young and never improved.
By contrast, great vintages can produce great wines. Red Bordeaux from 1945, 1949, 1953, 1959, 1961, and 1970 remain targets of collectors.
Too many people these days equate concentration (dark color, high alcohol) with greatness. In fact, some of the most elegant wines are far more appealing to consume soon after they were made. And such wines can age as well.
This is particularly true with merlot, a grape variety that is supposed to yield a more supple, approachable wine than cabernet. My experience with merlots is that most of them don’t age very long, reaching a peak at age 5.
The best trait for any wine, red or white, is balance. If a wine tastes good when it’s young, what’s the harm in opening it sooner? Still, some Americans hold to the belief that dark, concentrated red wines should be held until they are nearly senile.
The longest-lived dry red wines being made today are Barolo (from Northern Italy), California petite sirah, cooler-climate syrah, and some California cabernet sauvignons.
Best consumed at 5 to 7 years of age are Chianti, zinfandel, Cotes du Rhone, pinot noir, barbera, gamay, grenache, tempranillo, and many others.
Except for certain wines, the best bet is to open a wine sooner rather than later.
Wine of the Week
2019 Guigal Côtes Du Rhône ($19): One of the world’s most reliable red wines, this blend of grenache, syrah, and other grapes is faintly rustic with dark berry fruit and a generous midpalate. It is best when decanted for an hour.
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