Older, Not Better

By G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski

I recently attended a tasting of “old wines” with a group of serious amateur wine tasters. We tasted 10 Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, all of them between 17 and 23 years old. They were interesting (and rare), but in my opinion they were oxidized and overly brown. They didn’t show any of the varietal characteristics or beautiful fruit quality of younger wines.

Those Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots all tasted the same: dull and flat, with no personality. They were too old for my taste (although some of the other tasters liked them). Personally, I prefer wine when it’s younger, fresher and fruitier.

The simple fact is that wines improve with age only to a certain point—then they begin to degrade. Young red wines have a very vivid, purple/violet color. Their aroma and bouquet show signs of bright fruit and freshness, and they soon develop their personality. Most reds are lovely to consume in their second to fifth year, but after that, it’s generally downhill—not a drastic, overnight decline, but a gradual breakdown of tannins, acids and flavors.

The tannins in wine help prevent oxidation, the same process that occurs when an apple, cut in half, turns brown and loses freshness and flavor. In my experience, most reds aged 20 years or more taste dull and flavorless. White wines turn even faster because they don’t have tannins.

So if you buy a really expensive wine when your child is born in the hope of popping the cork on his or her 21st birthday, you may be greatly disappointed. In general, the vast majority of wines don’t improve with age. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Drink reds within five years of the vintage date, whites within three years.

Wines of the Month
Jewel Collection 2001 California Syrah ($10). What a great find! Big, full, mouth-filling fruit and balanced flavor. (209) 340-8500; globalwinegroup.com
Emmolo 2001 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($16). Grassy fruit with overtones of apricot and peach. A crisp and refreshing wine. (707) 963-6075