I just found a bottle of 2004 Fetzer chardonnay in my hall closet. It was on the floor hidden under a down comforter. Is it still good?
Thirsty in La Quinta
This answer might seem obvious to a lot of people—obvious because the idea is that chardonnay doesn’t age well. Obvious because Fetzer is an inexpensive brand. Obvious because it’s been housed in a sweatbox. Maybe obvious to some because it’s from California, and the common perception is that only wines from Europe age well.
But … what if it isn’t so obvious? What if the scenario was a 1998 Caymus Special Selection? What if the bottle wasn’t in your sweltering hall closet, but rather in a temperature-controlled wine fridge or cellar?
I recently celebrated a milestone birthday. Thus, it was a perfect excuse to uncork some bottles from the year of my birth and discover what aged better: Me, or the wine?
I’ve had a bottle of 1978 Kalin Cellars zinfandel in my possession for a long time—so long, in fact, that I can’t remember who gave it to me. Nothing in my cellar filled me with as much joy as this bottle. I thought this wine would always remain uncorked and in my collection. Maybe with a little “do not disturb” sign on it. I figured I would keep it as a fun wine relic that made my collection legit. Because I was not the original owner, I had no idea how this bottle was treated before I started lovingly caring for it. There was a significant amount of ullage (fancy speak for wine evaporation), and the mold was creeping out from under the foil. After a lot of thought, I decided that I could always keep the bottle—but if I was going to taste this wine, crafted by two people of undisputed genius and integrity, now was the time.
To my amazement, the cork came out almost entirely in one piece and was completely soaked through. Immediately, I could smell musky leather and sweet cigar. There was an earthy spiciness to it and even a little dried cranberry. It was alive! I actually shrieked out loud as if the wine glass I was holding was a winning lottery ticket. This 40-year-old California zinfandel was not just drinkable—it was delicious. Imagine that.
My dear friends gifted me a magnum of 1978 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon. This was the inaugural vintage of this wine under the expertise of the great André Tchelistcheff. Otherwise known as “The Maestro,” this man is considered the founding father of Napa, and his passion and knowledge is unrivaled.
Pulling the cork from this bottle gave me chills. I was about to experience history. Before tour buses, phony castles and bachelorette parties made their mark on Napa, it was a place of great destiny and unfettered hope. The dream of potential greatness was now in my glass, and it did not disappoint. If I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, the wine was every bit a Bordeaux. Truffles and mint and licorice leaped from the glass. I was in heaven.
I was 2-for-2. 1978 was a very good year.
At a party the other night, one of my friends was telling me that she had recently gone to dinner with her husband to celebrate their anniversary. They decided to open a bottle of 2005 Far Niente cabernet—the year they got married—to commemorate the occasion. To their shock and sadness, they discovered the wine was far past its prime—an undrinkable waste of money.
The question was, of course: Why? Convention says that wine gets better with time, and this was an expensive bottle from a very reputable producer. They had handled the bottle appropriately, and it really wasn’t that old. How could my 40-year-old wines kick the flavor pants off the 13-year-old?
Should we add wine to the list of things no longer allowed to age gracefully?
These questions gave me a great excuse to call my smarty-pants brother-in-law who also happens to be the enologist for Hall Wines in Napa. We got all nerdy about phenolics and color precipitation, and he schooled me on wine stability and pH levels. This is not exactly riveting content for a layman, so to put it simply: We discussed how winemaking has changed.
When California began its wine career, the idea was to emulate Bordeaux as much as possible. The first step in doing so meant picking the grapes earlier. An earlier harvest means grapes with higher acid and lower sugar, which translates to lower-alcohol wines. These are going to be wines with a beautiful garnet or ruby color. These are wines that have a silky and elegant mouthfeel. These are wines that have flavors and aromas like violets, cedar and plums. These are wines that are meant to be aged.
More often than not, when you pull the cork on a cabernet from California nowadays, you will be met with an opaque, inky, almost black wine. These will be wines that are rich and opulent on your palate. Flavors like blackberries, black cherries, vanilla and licorice will jump up and smack you in the face. The wines will most likely have an alcohol percentage of at least 14.5. These are wines that you want to drink sooner than later.
Winemaking has evolved over the last 40 years because consumers needs have changed. Their palates have changed. We buy a wine at 11 a.m. in order to have something to drink that night with dinner. We are a Jack-and-Coke, gin-and-tonic culture that learned to embrace wine—as long as it packed the same punch as our cocktail. I’ve even seen T-shirts that say “no wimpy wines allowed.” So most winemakers, in a crazy scheme to make money, follow consumer demand and create fruity, ripe, high-alcohol wines that are meant to be consumed right now. Any cellaring that needs to be done has most likely already been done by the winery before the wine is ever released to the market.
So what does this all mean? In short, we can’t have it both ways. That full-bodied wine that’s ready to pair with your steak tonight is not going to blow your hair back in 13 years, let alone 40. All those beautiful up-in-your-face fruit flavors that come jumping out of that inky liquid are going to be the first thing to dissipate as the wine matures. Once those primary flavors and aromas are gone, the wine has nothing left to offer. Without the preservative power of enough acid or tannin (and a few other nerdy factors) that will help the wine soften gradually and allow the flavors to meld together, that high-octane juice is going to fall flat on its face. Or worse, it will become an expensive bottle of vinegar.
This is not to say that Napa isn’t producing age-worthy wines—it is! They are just not the norm anymore, and that means the consumer needs to do a little homework before buying.
When in doubt, err on the side of younger is better. (Ahem, I’m still talking about wine here). Find a reason to celebrate (The newspaper wasn’t in the gutter this morning!), and open that bottle.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.