Jim Beauregard's Tasting Notes: The life of wine -- How old is too old?

JIM BEAUREGARD November 07. 2012 3:08AM

Last weekend's dinner date got me thinking about the life of a wine.

Like people, wine has a lifespan. The grapes are picked, crushed, fermented, put into casks of various types and sizes, or kept in steel tanks to preserve the freshness and clarity of the fruit flavors, then bottled, sold, and consumed.

Once the wine is in the bottle, it is not a finished product. What promotes change and development? In a word, oxygen.

For a bottle with a screw cap, air is kept out and there can be relatively little change over time. But with a bottle stopped with a cork, a tiny bit of air is able to get through to the wine, and the slow process of doing this causes the wine to develop.

As a rule of thumb, young wines are more notable for their fruit, older wines for their earthy, vegetal backgrounds. One sign that a wine has developed is that both flavors are present. What you don't want is a wine in which all the fruit goes away and all you have left is forest floor, for example.

The traditional, broad distinction between Old World and New World wines is that the ones from Europe (Old World) have a more subtle balance, with more earthiness and developing, background flavors. French Pinot Noir is a good example. The best ones have the raspberry and strawberry, of course, but also have vegetal aromas, like mushroom, as they age.

German Rieslings are white fruit like apple, and stone fruit when they are young, and the good ones age to include flavors of petrol (bad as that might sound, it's actually very tasty).

New World wine (meaning, basically, everybody else: Australia, North and South America, Africa) tends to be more fruit forward, and more amenable to drinking early.

So a wine is born, and travels into bottle. It then proceeds to have a childhood and adolescence as these initial aging changes are happening, and then, at some point (it differs by wine) reaches a level of maturity, and stays on that plane for a period of time. Development continues to happen, of course, but there is a general sense of the wine holding its own. The mature period may be a few months or 50 years, depending on the wine, and equally important, on how it is stored.

And now the scene shifts to the home of our friends Mary and Steve, where we had dinner Saturday night. Steve ("I had great wine. Then I had kids") brought up a bottle of 1992 Opus One. Twenty years old. If you aren't familiar with the history, it's a California wine that was the product of a collaboration between Robert Mondavi and the French winemaker Baron Philippe de Rothschild, of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, one of the world's great Bordeaux wines. Opus One was created in 1979, and has been releasing wines annually since for almost 30 years now.

Steve showed it to me (my heart started going pitter-patter, but I wondered aloud if it was still good. Twenty years out, many factors come into play, chief among them being how was it cellared (well, in Steve's case) and did the cork do its job (that is, let in just a teeny bit of air and resist letting the wine seep through).

When he popped it open, the answer was yes to both. The nose was primarily vegetal, but the fruit was there, peeping from behind it. The palate was again predominantly vegetal, with the black fruit detectable, but not strong - it was past its peak.

To decant or not to decant in a case like this? Typically, the best thing to do is to go from bottle to glass. Add too much air, and the wine can die before your eyes in a matter of minutes, going from vegetal and fruit to acetic and despair. We didn't decant, and the wine held its own for about 20 minutes. The air of decanting would have killed it outright.

Our conclusion: It should have been opened a decade ago, but it was not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. Many of the reviews on its release were well over 90 points. It didn't reach that mark this past weekend, but still did well.

Since prime rib was on the menu, Wendy and I brought one of our favorite California Pinot Noirs, Sonoma Coast's 2005 Land's Edge Pinot Noir ($48 at Harvest Market). Seven years old in this case, not 20, and it's had a good track record - we've had it on several special occasions before (at that price, it's definitely a special-occasion wine).

It was still predominantly purple in the glass, with some ruby starting to show, and the nose was deep red fruit, with a balance of background earthiness. The palate was nice and dry and the predominating fruit was raspberry, with strawberry lurking beneath the surface. The earthiness persisted through to the finish, making it a balanced California Pinot Noir, with good acidity, medium tannin and a long, pleasing finish. Perfect for prime rib. 91 points.


Wine Event: The Manchester Choral Society is holding its annual wine tasting event, this year called "Fly Me to the Moon - Wine Tasting and Auction" on Friday, Nov. 9, from 6 to 9:30 p.m. at Brady Sullivan Plaza, 1000 Elm St., Manchester. Tickets are $30 (or four for $100) in advance, $40 at the door. Go to www.mcsnh.org for tickets.


Contact local beer and wine writer Jim Beauregard at tastingnotesnh.com. (New address! Don't forget the "nh" in it!)


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