Grapevine: Determining the Age-Worthiness of Wines: Nature or Nuture?
“I purchased a wine that I thoroughly enjoyed and would like to save a few bottles for consumption over time. Will my wine age well?”
I am frequently asked this question. Invariably, my response is “It depends.”
As a living, breathing organism, every wine undergoes changes as it ages. Yet each ages differently, depending on its heritage, construct and the imprint of its winemaker. Certain grape varieties have ageworthy genes; many do not. Certain regions produce grapes that mature under ideal terroir conditions; many do not. Certain harvests are vinified in the hands of winemakers whose express intent is to produce wines that will mature over time, even foregoing early drinkability; many are not.
A fine wine’s life cycle can span a long period, as it evolves from a raw, unbalanced bottling to a complex, nuanced embodiment of the influence of its maker. This evolution in a bottle, if you will, takes place with varying results. In many ways, this is similar to the developmental stages of a child, who 1) is born into the world with the imprint of his or her genealogy, 2) is nurtured in unique familial surroundings and 3) ultimately matures as a unique representation of his or her upbringing.
Just as human development is impacted by an individual’s history and environment, so is it with wine. Certain wines reach their peak early in their life cycle, never to improve, while others have an intrinsic potential that evolves and blossoms over time. These latter wines require the patience of a wine consumer, often measured in decades, before their full potential is reached and a superior product is achieved.
Which brings us to the ultimate question: is fine wine a result of nature or nurture? Which exerts the greater influence: genetic code or environmental circumstances?
My personal viewpoint is that each is equally influential in determining the age worthiness of wine. Without a certain genetic makeup, the ability of a wine to develop and mature over time is limited, despite the skills of a winemaker. Likewise, in the hands of a less inclined or unskilled winemaker, wines produced from highly lauded grapes or growing regions may be stunted and their potential may dissipate after several years.
However, when the alchemy of nature and nurture are in sync, the result can be extraordinary. This is why I believe select wines from Bordeaux and Napa Valley command such high regard and concomitant prices, compared to other regions or winemaking traditions.
This pontification on my part carries a natural caveat. The influences on wine are not always in alignment. Many examples exist of widely varying results from highly regarded grapes in the hands of highly regarded winemakers. Long-lived wines may not be pleasing to the palate; they may age without deteriorating, but there is no assurance their aromas or taste will excite a discerning palate. This is the essence of one of life’s paradoxes: consistent excellence, in spite of esteemed genetics and environment, can be highly elusive.
Experts agree. Kevin Zraly, a Pleasantville native, and author of the highly acclaimed book Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, states: “More than 90% of all top wines made in the world should be consumed within a year, and less than 1% of the world’s wines should be aged for more than 5 years.”
How does nature influence a wine’s longevity? There are four basic components of wine, each present in varying degrees and exerting varying influences: tannins, acidity, taste and alcohol. The combination of each determines the final style and life cycle of wine. More on these in a future column.
The influences of nurturing on a wine’s longevity are more evident. A select group of winemakers have garnered reputations for producing fine, ageworthy wines. Seeking them out is just a mouse click away, but be sure your PayPal account link has a three or four digit balance.
Just as we observe our fellow humans as they age and mature, developing our own perception of their personality and character, so too with wine. But don’t over-think either.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine