To Age or Not to Age

When you think of drinking wine at the appropriate age, what picture comes to mind? Usually it is a red wine. Maybe a decanter is involved? It’s a special occasion or with friends and family. However, not all wine is designed to age a long time. I have heard so many stories of people saving a bottle of wine that they were given as a gift only to open it at some far later date to be absolutely horrified by what they smelled and tasted in the bottle. I’ll tell you a secret. Most wine is not meant to age beyond 1-2 years. However I will also tell you that you can probably figure out what type you are dealing with if you understand a bit about what makes wine appropriate to age.

How Do Wines Age? 

Wines age quite a lot like humans do. They go through a youthful phase, the prime of middle age, and the elegant sunset of old age. A youthful wine will still have bright fruit aromas, called primary aromas, and a core color without any browning leaving pure lemon-green in white wines and purple, sometimes blue, hues in red wines on the rim of the wine. Wines in middle age are known as having developing aromas. This is when the primary aromas start to be complemented (or not) by secondary aromas from the winemaking process such as oak spice or toast from lees as well as the beginning of bottle age aromas. The bottle age aromas are called tertiary aromas and usually show up in Cabernet as dried figs, nutty characters, or cedar characters. Each variety has its own tertiary aroma signature as it ages. Wines in middle age often start to show a browning on the rim which translates as gold in white wines or garnet in red wines. Wines coming to the end of their age cycle will be largely defined by their tertiary aromas with the rare exceptions of truly amazing wines which may still hint at the primary fruit of their youth. White wines of this level will likely be quite gold edging towards amber colored while red wines are fully garnet with tawny colored rims. This cycle’s timing depends on the wine and its key components which help the aging process. What are these key components? Tannin, acid, and sugar.  

Tannin

What is tannin? Tannin is an antioxidant compound found naturally in grapes and these compounds are transferred into the wine during the fermentation process. White wines have very little to no tannin which is why it is usually red wines that come to mind when one thinks of long term aging. Tannin naturally protects the wine from oxygen, which as a wine ages becomes more detrimental to wine quality. Wines with high levels of natural tannin are better prepared to withstand these effects of aging. Just like sunscreen protects us from the UV rays of the sun, the tannins protect the wine from oxygen thus slowing its maturation and allowing it to age more slowly. The higher the level of natural tannin, the more intense the protection which is why Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo age so well. How does this explain how Pinot Noir, a relatively low tannin variety, ages so well? Keep reading…

Acid

Like Tannin, acid is a key component of aging. A low pH coming from high acid levels contributes to the microbial stability of a wine. More importantly it also chemically slows the rate which oxidation reactions can occur which continues to decrease with an increasingly lower pH. Thus wines with low pHs age more slowly and have an increased life span than wines with higher pHs if all other components are equal. Low pHs are one of the main reasons that Rieslings and Hunter Valley Semillons age so well in addition to low tannin reds such as Pinot Noir. They are low in tannin but relatively low in pH which allows them to age more slowly.

Sugar

High levels of sugar are very helpful to aging. This comes down to osmotic pressure. What is osmotic pressure? Say you have a yeast cell. That yeast cell has a very low level of sugar inside it. Then you put it in an environment that is very high sugar. Cells naturally want to create an equilibrium between the inside and the solution that surrounds them. All the water rushes out of the cell and poof! No more yeast cell. The high level of sugar (plus pH as mentioned above) protects the wine from refermentation. A lack of microbial activity increases a wine’s ability to age further. Now when we say high sugar we are not talking about White Zin which usually runs around 26-35 grams per Liter. We are talking 80+ grams per Liter of sugar. For reference, Sodas can run a little over 100 grams per Liter. However, sugar alone will not help a wine. It needs to be sugar plus a low pH on a top quality wine. Think Botrytis affected wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji, or Trockenbeerenauslese. Icewines also benefit from this protection.  

Wines at least two of the above three components will have a better chance of long term aging success than wines with only one or none of the above. That being said, the wine needs to be a style which will improve or get more interesting with age. Varieties such as Muscato really benefit from being youthful when consumed so they should be enjoyed while still fresh and fruity. However, if you happen to like the characters of 10 year old Muscat then that’s great! Drink wines when you want to enjoy them, in whatever stage of life they may be. Don’t wait for the perfect moment when that moment may be now if that is when you want to drink that special bottle.

How old is your oldest bottle of wine? Tell me in the comments.

Originally written for and posted on Snooth.com

Vintage 2016 Update

Here we are again. Standing at the exciting start of another vintage.  It is the beginning of spring and while my friends in California are already well underway with budbreak, in the Finger Lakes, we are slowly emerging from one of the mildest winters in recent memory.  Even though the winter was largely mild, that did not mean it was without challenges.  After an almost 70 degree Christmas Eve, the temperatures plunged to below freezing rapidly in a 24 hour period. There was also one weekend in January where the temperatures plummeted as the Polar Vortex swooped in.  Many areas of the growing region reported temperatures well below zero with some dropping to 10 below, right to the edge of some Vinifera varieties’ cold hardiness.  This issue was compounded by the fact that we received very little snow this winter.  The snow can offer insulating properties for the trunk and graft union of the vines when it remains for the season. There was only one significant snowfall the entire winter.   It remains to be seen how these singular but compounding events will affect the crop.  Initial estimates have come in from 10% to 50% loss so it is likely that it will, once again, depend on individual site location.  Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, the two largest and deepest lakes of the Finger Lakes, didn’t even think about freezing this year which should help vineyards that were close to these bodies of water.  I didn’t achieve my goal of a weather station up on our property last year to record the winter temperatures so I have very little to go on to understand how our site would have been affected.

There is talk of an early budbreak here since the spring weather has been showing up earlier than normal. This brings the danger of an extended frost season to the area and very few vineyards have invested in the equipment to counteract it. The roar of frost fans, so common in the spring in Napa, does not exist here.  This serves as a silent reminder that, even though winter is over, the danger of cold is not.

In the winery, we are preparing to bottle the Riesling and the Rose for 240 Days as well as our own Trestle 31 Riesling. The Cabernet Franc is developing in barrels very nicely and I’m encouraged by what I see evolving there.  Brian and I met with Stuart Pigott, this past week who tasted through all four wines and seemed to like them. Pigott’s write up can be found  here on his site, Riesling Global.  It’s always nerve racking for me, regardless of how long I’m in the industry, to present my wines, which are in some ways like my children for judgement. I’m glad he understood what we were trying to do.

For my part, I am thoroughly enjoying the weather. Spring here consists of cold but sunny days with piercing blue skies with white puffy clouds perfect for identifying hidden pictures with my three year old. I am waiting for all the bulbs that I planted last fall to show their first signs of life and for those two weeks that usually happen in late spring where everything is a verdant green and blooming.

Ningxia Winemaker Challenge: Part 2 – Post ML

It’s been a week since I returned from China after flying over to check on my wine there.  This trip was much faster than my previous trip and I packed quite a bit more into the 8 days that I spent there.  My first three days were spent in Beijing, where I taught a WSET Diploma Unit 5 class for Fongyee Walker’s Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting.  One of those days I took some time for myself and toured the sights of Beijing, including a trip to the fantastic Great Wall of China at Mu Tian Yu and the Summer Palace.

  
 

The Summer Palace

 
After my first few days in Beijing, I spent 4 days in Ningxia.  My first order of business upon landing in Ningxia was to find out how my wine looked.  Remember, last time I tried it only one tank was pressed off and the second tank was pressed on the day I flew back home.  I hadn’t tried it at all since Malolactic had finished and I had no idea how it was adapting to the barrels.  I didn’t even know what shape the used barrels were in when the wine was added to them.  I had left detailed instructions on how to soak the used barrels using a Potassium Metabisulfite and Citric acid solution and could only pray that everything would be ok.  Fortunately, everything looked very good.  The wine is taking to the new barrels quite well and to my surprise this is the treatment that appears to be helping the wine the most.  My DAMY barrels are showing beautifully!  Having never used DAMY in the past I was skeptical at first but I was able to taste some Ningxia wines from 2014 which were being aged in new DAMY barrels and this profile seems to help support the Ningxia terroir quite well.  The used barrels are all French and are helping the wine as well however they are old enough that very little oxygen transmission is taking place which is leaving the wine a little tight and reductive at this point.  Nothing a quick rack wouldn’t get rid of however.  The portion that I left in tank, to hedge my bets a bit just in case the barrels were a disaster, is clearly not as mature as the wine in barrels but it has retained its fresh, fruitiness which should add a nice component to the blend.  Overall, I’m quite happy with where the wine is at the moment.  When I come back in the summer, I’ll be able to get a clear picture of what I want to blend for the final competition.

  

Mr Wu, the winemaker of Lansai Chateau, gets barrel samples for us to taste


 The rose needed some work to be prepped for bottling.  All of the Ningxia wines tend to have quite seedy tannins, even if the wines had very little seed contact including the rose.  I did a fining trial and also bumped the SO2 a bit so that the winery could bottle it shortly.  I’m interested to see how it turns out and also how it sells since the Rose trend that has caught the rest of the world has yet to catch on in mainland China.  My friend, Jose Hernandez, was also in Ningxia at the same time so we were able to tour about a bit and go see some of the other wineries in the area including Chandon Ningxia, Jiabeilan, and a quick visit to Yuan Shi both for their lab services and tasting the 2015 vintage from barrel.  The visit to Jiabeilan was quite fun since I was able to meet the legendary Ningxia winemaker, Zhang Jing.  She was very open, answered questions, and allowed us to taste all of her wines including a very interesting Chardonnay that had the acid of a cool climate but slightly tropical fruit of a warmer climate.

  

Jose and Zhang Jing of Jiabeilan


 My partner winery in Ningxia, Lansai Chateau, is almost finished.  They have done quite a bit of work since I was there in the fall and it is easy to see how much of a destination they are planning it to be.  The guest rooms are almost finished as is the separate kitchen and the Chinese gardens.  Soon there will be tasting rooms and a restaurant available to allow people to visit and enjoy the wines where they were made.  The winery has been designed to be a showplace and I’m sure it will live up to that hope with every detail put in place.

The entryway of Lansai Chateau with Helan Mountains in the background

 

The garden of Lansai Chateau under construction

 
 After leaving Ningxia, I went back to Beijing to have dinner with our Constellation representative, Berny Yang, more sightseeing including the Temple of Heaven and the Pearl Market, and teach another class for Dragon Pheonix Wine Consulting, this time on Constellation and branding of the Robert Mondavi family of wines. Jose and I also got together with Grape Wall of China writer and Canadian expat, Jim Boyce, to go on a wine sales tour of Beijing.  We visited a general supermarket, specialty supermarket, high end wine shop, and casual wine shop to get a sense of what the market looked like in Beijing, how wines were being sold and what was trending.  See last week’s post on the China wine market for more information from that tour.

All in all it was a very successful trip and I look forward to my next trip during the summer.

 

Tiles on the Temple of Heaven