Wine for the ages

There are dozens of misunderstandings amongst the general public when it comes to wine. It is too expensive, it all tastes the same, I don’t know anything about it so I have to look like a deer caught in the headlights when presented with the wine list in a restaurant, anyone who knows the name of a grape variety that is not chardonnay or merlot is a snob,… . I can go on for a while but there is one particular one that I would like to single out: the ageability of wine. I would estimate that around 80% of today’s wine is made to be drunk over the next three years (methodology – the consultant’s guesstimate). If you buy a bottle that costs less than ten euros, pounds or dollars, drink it. Don’t keep it lying around, don’t tuck it away for a raining day but pop the cork, turn the screwcap and drink it exactly as it was intended to be, quick and easy. If a wine comes of as well-integrated, evolved, and simply tastes good now, drink it as the possibility that it will taste better in a couple of years will only dwindle with time.

There was a time when vinification techniques were too rudimentary in order to create good wine in lesser vintages. Tannins that leave your mouth parched or acidity that bites the email right of your teeth were often reasons to forget a wine for a couple of years, allowing them ample time to settle and find their balance. These days it has become too easy. Deacidification is used to keep acidity in check whereas microbullage, sending pure oxygen through wine, is used to soften tannins. This may soften the lead-time for drinkable wines but it also robs wines of the backbone, be it in the form of tannins or acidity, that it needs to age well.

I think that ageability and its (un)importance is a theme to keep in mind when discussing wine but for now I simply lack the level of knowledge that I would like to attain in order to make a more proper assessment of the wines I present. Part of this is due to not knowing anything about the scientific side of evolving wine and part is due to lack of experience. It is inevitable that wine gets more expensive as it ages and the great ones are simply unaffordable so this will remain a gap for the time being. Nonetheless, over the years I have had the opportunity to taste older vintages or peculiar wines from the last century and there are some experiences I can share with you.

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The Spanish DO Montilla-Moriles is home to one of the world’s greatest sweet wines based on a unique grape variety, Pedro Ximenez. Grapes are dried on straw mats in the weeks following the harvest allowing the water to evaporate leaving only a concentration of sugar. Fermentation is difficult as yields are very small, resulting in high levels of sugar. Neutral alcohol is therefore added to get it up to the European minimum requirement of 15% for fortified wine upon which the wine is further aged in oak.

Toro Albala is one of the greatest estates in the region. Yields are incredibly low (30kgs for one bottle) and on average a wine spends 30 (!) years in cask. At a recent tasting with the Belgian importer I had the opportunity to taste a Gines de Liebana 1910. This wine has spent a century getting older in oak and in 2010 the estate decided to see what it would give. Incredibly dark in colour but lighter than the younger vintages. The first impression on the nose is wood, which is what you would expect after 100 years but there is also an amazing depth of fruit to be found. Dried figs, raisins, even a bit of prune and chocolate. You get the same impression in the mouth, a bit too much wood even at first, but the sweetness is not too overbearing, elegant with even the tiniest hint of freshness. The finish does not stop and goes on and on, again elegant and soft. It is an unforgettable experience to taste this, to still discover so much life in a wine after a century. The only downside is the price at 391 euros. If you consider that this is only 4 euros a year in cask it’s a steal, right? Right?

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Now, this wine is at around 19 degrees of alcohol so is this then an indicator of ageing potential? Not necessarily as the greatest sweet wines of Germany can go as low as 8% and can be as indestructible as PX. I found a bottle of Riesling, 1970 Gerhard Maurer (Pfalz) Spatlese in the cellar over the weekend and seeing as previous experiences with my grandfather’s wine cellar resulted in barely drinkable wines at best, expectations were low. When I poured the wine the colour did not bode well, a dark, golden yellow. The nose was surprisingly good. A tiny bit of alcohol at first, but then orange skin, grand marnier and a little bit of citrus zest. It was absolutely wonderful on the palate, smooth, orangey and still with that incredible acidity that kept it just in place. Whereas I would recommend the PX with a dessert to keep the majestic feeling in check, this is something to enjoy simply like this in all its light and refreshing sweetness.

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