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Winemakers' Views On Why Wines Age

August 2008
 
by Tim Patterson
 
 
What makes wine age
 
Although winemaker Peter McCrea of Stony Hill claims not to know what makes certain wines age well, the winery's Napa Valley Chardonnay is known to be drinkable for up to 30 to 40 years.
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • In the second of two columns on how wines age, winemakers with track records for making age-worthy bottles offer their opinions.
     
  • Rather than emphasizing the anti-oxidant role of polyphenolic compounds, the winemakers universally pointed to balance, particularly the combination of acidity and pH.
     
  • Many of the winemakers doubted the ageability of the current crop of low-acid, high-pH, higher-alcohol wines. Will these wines simply age differently?
     
  • Though most of the winemakers thought they could taste a young wine and predict its age-worthiness, they all acknowledged surprises and exceptions.
As every enology graduate knows, there's science, and then there's winemaking.

Last month, I shared the highlights from several conversations with university wine researchers about why some wines are capable of aging well while most others aren't. This time we'll hear from the winemakers--a group of 10 well-respected producers with an average of about 20 years of experience, and reputations for making wines with aging potential. Do these folks know what they're doing, or have they just been lucky?

This set of interviews was very different from the first round, though some of the themes and threads remained consistent. The university researchers--all avid wine drinkers--talked like chemists, which they all are. The winemakers, most of whom are university-trained, talked like consumers and focused on what the wines taste like, which is why it's a good thing they make the wine. Somewhere in between was Leo McCloskey, a consultant with a massive database of wine metrics and an eye on the consumer market. Both groups shared the view that there's a lot we know about wine aging and a lot we don't.

Deconstructing wine chemistry

My academic cohorts--Andy Waterhouse and Sue Ebeler from the University of California, Davis; Jim Kennedy at Oregon State University, and Ken Fugelsang at California State University, Fresno--all started by pointing to the crucial role played in red wine aging by complex polyphenolic compounds, the various agglomerations of tannin and pigment. Their importance, the researchers said, is not so much that they give a wine structure, but that they devour and neutralize oxygen and keep it from decomposing everything else in the wine. Phenols in sufficient abundance preserve and protect red wines long enough for them to develop new and intriguing bottle flavors and bouquets.

Second billing went to pH and its mirror image, acidity. For white wines--short on phenolics--this dynamic duo generally was thought to be the key preservative.

Even with these insights into what holds wines together over time--all potentially measurable and quantifiable--my informants admitted they wouldn't be able to predict exactly how one of these well-preserved wines might smell and taste after a decade or two. The roster of precursors and mechanisms that may--or may not--affect a wine's ultimate flavor and aroma is so long and complex that the chemists remain in the dark with the rest of us. A wine could last forever but never be interesting.

My winemakers frequently started the calls with a kind of "aw, shucks" self-deprecation. Peter McCrea of Stony Hill, famous for its long-lasting Chardonnays, opened with, "We don't know, frankly."

Bob Travers of Napa's Cabernet/Chardonnay-producing Mayacamas claimed he was "not all that sure." Stacy Clark, for 20 years the winemaker at Napa's Pine Ridge, tried to turn the tables: "I don't pretend to know--what do you think?"

Several winemakers, including Rick Small of the pioneering Walla Walla Bordeaux-variety winery Woodward Canyon, insisted that they never set out to make age-worthy wines, it just happened that way. And still, by the end of the interviews, almost all the winemakers said they thought they could do a pretty good job of predicting how well and for how long a given wine would develop.

How wines age
 
"I don't pretend to know. What do you think?"
--Stacy Clark, winemaker for Pine Ridge, on why some wines age well
Nearly everyone started by pointing to balance as the crucial indicator. Balance was the watchword for winemakers as diverse as Riesling enthusiast Morton Hallgren of Ravines, formerly of Dr. Konstantin Frank in the New York Finger Lakes (See "Finger Lakes Makes Match With Riesling"); Bob Lindquist of Rhône-centric Qupé in Santa Barbara; Mitch Cosentino, who has at one time or another vinified nearly everything from his perch in Napa; longtime Carneros Pinot Noir grower and wine producer Fr ancis Mahoney; and Rick Small, Bob Travers and Stacy Clark. The same mix of acid, tannin, fruit, alcohol and oak that makes a wine taste good now is, they said, the best predictor of how well it will taste later.

Nobody started by talking about phenolics, though when I brought it up, they all agreed that, sure, that's important for big reds. What they mainly wanted to focus on, however, was pH and/or acidity, factors more directly and immediately related to how a wine tastes. The role of tannin, however important, was strictly behind the scenes: Too much evident, astringent tannin now would only mean too much of it later, too. Or, as Bob Lindquist put it, "We started out with a French model of ageable wines, but we also knew we had to be able to sell wine right now."

Vintages and variations

Using that lens of relatively high acidity and relatively low pH, several winemakers thought that, on the whole, cooler years are better than warmer ones for producing ageworthy wines, since they allow the fruit to develop fully ripe flavors without too much fall-off in acidity. Lindquist liked the fact that cooler vintages often have smaller crops; Morton Hallgren noted that cooler years give Riesling a bit more phenolic firmness; Rick Small observed that some of the leaner vintages he's seen, bottles that weren't big hits initially, sustained themselves better over time.

With all this focus on pH, acidity and balance, it came as no surprise that every single winemaker expressed skepticism--if not something stronger--about the aging potential of the nouveau California style of winemaking, typically characterized by higher pH, lower acidity and noticeably higher alcohol. This was, to be sure, a somewhat "old school" sampling of winemakers--inevitably so because I wanted the experience of people with lots and lots of vintages under their belts. There were some shots taken at "entertainment wines" and "Parkerization." David Graves at Pinot-loving Saintsbury in the Carneros had a new one for me, "Bobification."

The consensus was that wines with this radically different wine chemistry--this balance so altered it amounted to an imbalance--were bound to fall apart in short order, once the immediate hedonism had passed. Bigger is not better, several said; balance is what makes wines age, not power.

While sharing concerns about high pH and low acidity, Genevieve Janssens at Robert Mondavi doubted that high alcohol would impair aging; if anything, she said, it would act as an additional preservative, as it does in fortified wines.

Her comments reminded me of what Andy Waterhouse and Jim Kennedy had said about the new breed of wines. Protected by their phenolic content--even if the potential astringency is masked by just a tad of residual sugar--high-alcohol wines simply may age in their own distinctive way. They won't have the same trajectory as the wines of the classic Bordeaux model--the reference point for most of my winemakers--but the wines still may have their loyal fans a decade or two from now.

Like the rest of the group, Stacy Clark had her doubts about the "edgy chemistry" of some of today's wines. But she also offered a thought-provoking perspective on how much standards have changed in the industry. "People will say that the great wines of the 1940s lasted forever, and why can't we have wines like that now? But what people thought was acceptable then might not be now. Some wine made in 1942 tasted great in 1974--but in comparison to what?"

Finally, still on the trail of balance, I asked my interviewees if ageability could be created in the cellar. Even the humblest supermarket wines have been tweaked and fiddled so that their basic wine chemistry numbers look pretty good--but no one claims they will age. Universally, my winemakers said you can't force-feed the kind of balance that yields ageability.

"Even if the numbers are right," Bob Travers said, "there's no true grape character." Mitch Cosentino said, "There's a difference between what's natural and what's added." Francis Mahoney thinks that if the grapes weren't grown right, there's nothing you can do; Peter McCrea said the grapes have to have great fruit concentration, period.

The winemakers' insistence that there has to be something beyond the numbers harkened back to what the flavor chemists had to say in my first crack at decoding aging. For researchers Sue Ebeler and Ken Fugelsang, there's a lot to the biochemical stew of any wine that can't be readily projected or programmed. We know many of the bits and pieces, we can diagram some of the reactions, but there's still more going on in that bottle than anybody can comprehend.

There's a difference between what preserves a wine and what's in there to be preserved. Genevieve Janssens said that vintage variation is not that important for the ageability of their reds; Mondavi's Carneros Pinot always should be consumed within three years, and its To Kalon Cabernet always ages for many years. But what's different, vintage-by-vintage, are the flavors, for young wines and old.

Exceptions and cautions

As the conversations went on, exceptions to any and all rules inevitably came up. Though I was expecting to be talking mainly about reds, several winemakers wanted to talk about whites, even when they didn't fit the high acid/low pH mold. Riesling and Chardonnay were described in terms of the standard balance, but Cosentino spoke at some length about the life span of Sémillon, and Bob Lindquist about the longevity of Marsanne. Both grapes are relatively lower in acid than their frequent blendmates, Sauvignon Blanc and Roussanne, respectively, but both are also longer-lived. Go figure. "Something in the DNA," Cosentino surmised.

There can be a downside to winning the longevity lottery, as a cautionary tale from Saintsbury's David Graves illustrates. In 2004, Saintsbury was asked for a wine donation for a gala, and sent over several magnums of its 1993 Reserve Pinot Noir. Upon opening the bottles, the catering staff decided the wines seemed unusual, maybe off, spoiled, and whisked them off to…somewhere, replacing them with Saintsbury's fresh, young, entry-level Garnet Pinot.

When it comes to aging wines, be careful what you wish for.

Cabernet cache from Davis
 

 
How wines age
I put in a call to Chik Brenneman, winemaker for the University of California, Davis, campus winery, who had hosted an intriguing tasting of old California Cabernets a while back.

Many cases of wine from some of the state's best-known producers were donated to the university in 1983-2004 to mark its 75th year and the viticulture and enology department's 100th season. Most were sold for fundraising purposes, but cases of wines from 24 producers, all from the 1980 vintage, somehow ended up behind a false wall in the department's wine cellar.

The bottles, all identically stored, were rediscovered a couple of years ago, and some tastings were held. The results: Contrary to what you might expect, the Sonoma Cabernets tended to hold up better than the ones from Napa, and, at least according to some tasters, the biggest names didn't do as well as some of the lesser lights.

T.P.
 
Tim Patterson writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.
 
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