W. Blake Gray

Aging potential? What aging potential?

This is a common sentence in wine reviews: “Should continue to develop for 10-12 years.” You see it all over the Wine Spectator. In the Wine Advocate, it’s characteristically more enthusiastic: “Explosive flavors of dark chocolate, hazelnut parfait drizzled with fresh Tahitian vanilla sauce and crushed, fire-roasted Bing cherries. Will be fantastic for the next 25 years and beyond.”

But it’s a lie.

That’s right. I’m not going to be polite and say, “It’s a guess.”

The most mainstream and popular American wine critics’ estimates about how long wines will age are cynical, ignorant, expensive lies.

Here’s why.

Wine is different now than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Many wines are made from grapes that were riper and lower in acidity. The great Bordeaux houses, the top Burgundies, the best from California: very few wineries have been unaffected by the availability of better viticultural technology that allows grapes to get riper. And this is most true at the modern wineries that achieve the highest scores with these publications.

This is not an anti-alcohol rant. Many, if not most, people prefer riper wines. I understand that. Moreover, I’m not going to argue that wines were better 30 years ago. They weren’t. Great vintages were much more rare, and bad vintages were often just about undrinkable. My point is not nostaglia.

Promises, promises…

My point is this: When we taste a wine today from 1989 or 1992, it doesn’t tell us anything about how today’s wines will taste in 15 or 20 years, because today’s wines are different. We don’t have a track record for knowing how top-scoring wines of today will age. And what little we do know — which I’ll get to in a moment — is not promising for their longevity.

I chose the word “lie,” rather than “mistake,” because critics and publications are smart enough to know this.

Did 1997 cabs from Napa age as well as the “vintage of the century” promised?

The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator continue to refuse to add alcohol percentage to their reviews. The Spectator even lists case production on every wine, but not alcohol percentage, which is easy for anyone to understand and would tell you a lot more about the wine. They like and defend the very ripe style of wine, which, again, is fine: it’s easier, more consistent, and more popular with their audience to choose the ripest wine out of 24 than, say, the most food-friendly or the most complex.

But anybody who opens a lot of old bottles knows very ripe wines from the more recent past didn’t age well. For California, critics announced a “vintage of the century” in 1997, with huge ratings for some luscious, delectable, ripe wines. Most wineries will tell you those ’97s are dead now, while the lean, low-rated 1998s are in many cases delicious today.

There is still debate over whether the ripe 1982 Bordeaux wines aged as well as others in that decade. Eric Asimov tasted them and agreed with Robert Parker that they have. Those two minds don’t meet all that often, so it’s worth noting. But “ripe” in 1982 meant something entirely different from “ripe” in 1997, and something different again in 2012.

Wines are objectively, measurably different now. Alcohol percentage is one such measurement, not the only one to be sure, and likely not as important in ageability as total acidity and pH. But alcohol percentage is the measurement most easily available to the public.

I think of the 1997 California Cabernets a lot when thinking of vintage projections. I call these publications “cynical” because I know their critics have tasted some of these 1997 wines, and they must be good enough tasters to recognize that the wines’ freshness is gone. Yet they don’t report this or take it into consideration in the effusive, fruit-forward comments on how long today’s wines will last.

I call this “ignorant” because any sommelier you talk to, as well as most winemakers, will tell you that low-acid, high-alcohol wines will not age well. Not reporting this is to ignore other people’s expert opinions.

And I call this “expensive” because these publications are telling their readers to waste money.

Will today’s wines age as promised by wine magazines? (photo: Steffen Haussman)

Surely somewhere at the front of the magazine is a disclaimer, perhaps in fine print. But in the body of the tasting notes themselves, which is all most readers see — particularly when searching online — there is no such hedge except the word “should.” What percentage of certainty do you think “should continue to develop for 10 to 12 years” implies? In other words, if I say, “this Cabernet should be best in 2023,” do you think that means there’s a 75% chance that the wine will be best then? Higher?

Sorry, wine review publishers, but “should” does not imply the high degree of uncertainty that actually exists.

If you buy a case of a very ripe, low-acid Cabernet that’s delicious today, and you put nine bottles away to drink in a decade because you read in a magazine that the wine “should” be delicious in 10-12 years, you might be throwing away the money you spent on those nine bottles. You won’t realize for 10 years that you wasted your money. And you’re likely to blame yourself, or your storage, or the cork, or the gods. You’re not likely to blame the critic who misled you.

First-growth Bordeaux and prime Napa Cabernet have become investments as much as they are beverages. As long as nobody opens them — as long as they’re shuttled through auction houses and displayed as trophies, like limited-production action figures still in their wrapping — it doesn’t matter what they taste like. But if future auction prices are expected to have any relationship to drinkability, then prominent wine critics, whose reviews are cited to establish value, should try to have some accountability. At least they should be honest and write, “Delicious now; perhaps it will be more so in 10 years.” (Although the really honest thing would be to say, “Who really knows what this will taste like in 15 years? Sha-la lalalala live for today.”)

By the time any of these trophies are opened, the critics who pumped up their value may be retired, having left a trail of dead wine in cellars around the world. Now there’s a legacy.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://palatepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/blake2.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.[/author_info] [/author]