When Patience Really is a Virtue (Aging Wine)

The coming Chagim present a perfect opportunity to dig deep into our cellars and bring out some of those Moshiach Wines. While RCC has (and continues to) provide its hundreds of participants around the globe with monthly “excuses” to open and share some of our better wines, the Jewish Holiday “season” of Rosh Hashana, Succot and Simchat Torah (together with Pesach) represent the ultimate opportunity to elevate our enjoyment of wine to a whole new (and dare I say, spiritual) level.

Despite a number of Moshiach Wine options available for purchase and immediate consumption, the vast majority of such options (and certainly any RCC-qualifying wine) need some time to attain maturity and require some significant investment on the part of their owner. However and contrary to popular belief, the primary outlay in procuring wines at a level that will properly honor our holiday table(s) is not a large chunk of cash but rather the cheaper yet significantly more difficult to attain attribute of patience. In order to properly understand and better appreciate the sheer awesomeness of aged (and properly cellared) wine, this week’s newsletter is going to discuss the science behind a wine’s metamorphosis over the years, and the impact it has on the resulting tastes and aromas and what storage requirements are needed to ensure proper aging is achieved.

While the advent of wine as a consumable beverage predates modern archeology (with the story of Noach and his vines representing the earliest record of humans interaction with wine), there is plenty of tangible evidence that the advantages of aging wine has been known for thousands of years and a significant amount of human ingenuity has been dedicated to the best ways to achieve such aging. Despite the earliest archeological evidence of a winery only being 6,100 years old, the earliest evidence of wine aging are five, 7,000 year old, pottery jugs (with remnants of resin used to seal them) excavated from beneath the dirt floor of a Neolithic kitchen in Iran. Repurposing existing underground storage for wine storage was popularized by the Romans, who in later years utilized their catacombs for this purpose (many caves throughout France’s Champagne region used today for wine storage were dug by the Romans in order to mine the region’s famed salt and chalk), but the practice of digging cellars specifically to store wine was started by the vino-obsessed French, who set out to create the perfect environment for their beloved beverage.

It wasn’t only wine’s ability to last for decades that was recognized and appreciated by the early Greeks (the high sugar content of their straw wines were found to provide long aging ability) and Romans (the excellent Falernian wines were recognized near and far) so many years ago, but also the qualitative improvement the wine underwent as it aged. Jancis Robinson’s indispensable Companion to Wine quotes the Greek physician Galen who wrote that the taste of aged wine was desirable and that this could be accomplished by heating or smoking the wine, though, in Galen’s opinion, these artificially aged wines were not as healthy to consume as naturally aged wines (no different than today’s various wine gizmos falsely proclaiming their ability to hasten the effects of properly aged wine). The Romans built smokehouses to artificially age the wine and achieve some of the flavors and aromas associated with the aged wine they prized so highly, while Pliny the Elder cautioned (like Galen) against utilizing these methods for the top tier wines (Madeira wine is actually subjected to extreme high temperatures to achieve maturity and ensure its viability for decades). Following the fall of the Roman Empire the interest in aged wines was basically non-existent (and winemaking was kept alive primarily through the efforts of the Catholic Church) until the 1600’s when the marriage of glass bottles and corks revitalized the concept and took it to a whole new level.

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing world, where we have convinced ourselves of the need to stay connected at all times (or at least 24/6), the concept of buying wine today in order to drink it 5, 10, 20 or even 30 years from now is archaic to most and directly contradictory to the world of instant gratification we live in, enabled by advances in technology. While many such advances have enormous positive impact, denying the liquid with which we sanctify Shabbat the necessary time to achieve perfection seems egregious to me.

It is important to note that most wines aren’t meant (nor do they need) extensive aging and this newsletter is talking about the tiny subset of wines that will improve with age. While the aforementioned desire for instant gratification may have contribute to the well-known cliché that almost all wine is consumed within 24 hours of its purchase, the fact that more than 95% of the world’s wine production doesn’t need any cellaring is a far more likely culprit. Taking things one step further and despite wine being one of the only consumable goods that can improve with time (honey may not spoil but it also doesn’t improve with age), the vast majority of wines will no longer be enjoyable after a few years regardless of the quality of its storage conditions

Along with many of the terrific developments in the kosher wine world previously discussed (e.g. explosive growth in the consumer base and the accompanying growth in quality and optionality), we are faced with the unfortunate reality that many special wines are being consumed far too early in their life, denying their owners the enhanced pleasure brought on by some serious cellaring time. An even worse occurrence than depriving one’s self of that additional level of greatness buried within the wine is the far too common phenomenon of not disliking an expensive bottle of recently acquired wine solely as a result of it not yet being ready to drink. Far too often am I confronted by folks who didn’t enjoy a great wine solely because they didn’t give the wine sufficient time in the cellar (or decanter), the result being a heavy reluctance to ever purchase it again (this is one of the reasons I constantly advise wine sellers when having tastings of higher-end wines to properly decant them and, if possible, present older vintages of the same wine when having tastings) showcase not providing the wine with proper decanting and/or cellaring time, thus depriving themselves of ever enjoying the wine again.

Developments in technology and winemaking methods have provided winemakers with the ability to cater to our need instant gratification by producing high-end wines that are approachable and even enjoyable upon release, with many top producers creating wines that require far less cellaring time than in the past. While there is an ongoing debate as to whether today’s Bordeaux wines will age as long as those of years past, there is no question that they are approachable far earlier in life than in the past (kosher wines showcasing this change include the 2014 Château Pape Clément and the 2009 Château Smith Haut Lafitte (which is far more approachable early on than the magnificent 2000 vintage was (although this may also be attributable to the 2009 Bordeaux vintage which yielded richer and far more opulent wines as a whole)). However, many wines still require channeling a little patience (and proper storage conditions) to achieve the greatness that lies within.

In addition to our ever-increasing lack of patience, a slew of circumstances collaborate to prevent most wine lovers from experiencing the pleasures of mature wine. These include a lack of cellaring room, the cost of professional storage and the ever-rising cost of acquiring well-aged wines from a source with impeccable provenance (in of itself, an exceptionally rare find). Despite my inclusion of drinking windows in nearly every tasting note, some folks are nervous they will forget about the wines (Cellar Tracker is your friend here) or end up opening them after their peak drinking time, preferring safe over sorry. However, for many it is a lack of knowledge with respect to the importance of aging and proper storage and a lack of appreciation for the enhanced pleasure properly aged wines can bring. Most of us know about the same as the ancient Romans did – in order for wine to age properly it needs a dark, cool and quiet place with relatively little temperature variations. That is a good start, but understanding what happens to wine as it slumbers peacefully and why these are the needed conditions is important.

The main reason wine is sometimes referred to as a living thing is its ability to evolve over time (not necessarily improve, but simply change), a characteristic that differentiates it from nearly every other consumable product. The medley of acids, sugars, alcohols, glycosides, esters and phenolic compounds (including arguably the most important of them – tannins) that comprise a wine’s DNA are what enables it to evolve over time. As the various compounds connect, disconnect and reconnect over and over at varying speeds and with different results each time, they yield an ever-evolving kaleidoscope of colors, textures, flavors and aromas. Fresh notes of ripe fruit evolve into dried and candied fruit; aromas of leather, fresh-turned forest floor, flint, honey, pungent mushrooms and herbs magically appear, as if from thin air. While modern science now has the ability to understand many of these reactions, including some specific changes they bring about, we are still not able to quantify exactly how any particular wine will evolve over time, leaving the increasingly important factor of drinking windows as an inexact art left to wine writers such as myself (more on that below). The difficulty is exacerbated by the many different factors that impact a wine’s aging process including the varietal in question, the region (or even plot) in which it was grown and environmental conditions such as heat, wind and rainfall.

As wine ages, changes may occur in its color, texture, aroma and flavor. As you know, our taste buds are only capable of discerning five basic tastes – sweet (the presence of sugar), sour (the presence of acid), bitter, salty and the more controversial umami. In a wine, our tongues can also sense textural sensations such as heat from alcohol, astringency from tannin and creaminess. All other tastes in a wine are detected thorough our olfactory passages, making them technically aromas and not tastes (many scientists believe that grapes developed this amazing myriad of smalls as a wine to entice pollinating insects), but whatever their genesis or exact technical definition – they certainly contribute immensely to our enjoyment!

One of the most important players in a wine’s aroma are esters, which are created when alcohol reacts with acids. One of the many factors that determine the kind of esters produced is the yeast(s) used during fermentation and the level of hydrogen, which encourages this reaction (higher acid wines typically contain higher levels of hydrogen). As the wine ages and the esters undergo hydrolysis, the fresh and fruity aromas of a new wine recede and new aromas evolve as the esters degrade. This changing interaction between the esters and their primary compounds means that the aromas are constantly changing as well (e.g. the esters in a newly released Napa Valley Chardonnay may give off buttery notes while a few years later the same esters may yield aromas of green apples and apples).

Phenolic compounds are another major factor in the changes to a wine’s smells and tastes over time (and their ration to the level of water in the grape and wine are an important factor in a wine’s ability to age). While many phenolic compounds can be found in wine, tannins are by far the most important to a wines aging ability. Tannins love to bind with proteins, which is one of the reasons big and bold red wines go so well with steaks and other hunks of red meat. If you ever tried a rich red wine only to find your mouth puckering, that was the tannins binding to the salvia’s proteins and inhibiting its ability to lubricate your mouth. Tannins are naturally present in the skin, seed and stem of grapes and are also “introduced” into a wine through the use of aging the wine in oak barrels which also impart tannin (one of the reasons red wines age on a whole better than white and rosé wines is their shorter contact period with these tannin-imparting parts of the grape). Over time, the tannins undergo polymerization, a chemical reaction that binds them together in long chains. As they bind together, their surface exposure is reduced and they lose the ability to bind to other proteins, thus lowering the astringency and eliding a smoother tasting wine (after an extended period of time the chains grow too heavy and drop to the bottom of the bottle in the form of sediment) – this may be described in tasting notes as “integrating tannins.” While leaving the tannins out of a wine entirely would make them easier to enjoy immediately, the tannins serve an important purpose in a wine’s ability to age for a long time. Before tannins bind to each other, they tend to bind to other aromatic chemicals in the wine, thus helping the wine retain its original flavors as it gains new ones throughout the aging process, providing enhanced complexity – another great factor in aged wines. Along with acidity, tannins also help prevent oxygenation.

However, without a good dose of acidity in the wine it likely won’t age well. While tannins are a predominant factor in the ageability of red wines, acid is one of the most important aspects that contribute to a white wine’s ability to age (along with oak tannins and sugar content (see below)), while still being important to a red wine’s ability to age as well. High acidity is the primary reason that Chenin Blanc, Riesling and cool-climate Chardonnay (e.g. White Burgundy) are among the white wines with the highest aging ability. As wine ages, the level of acidity may shrink and other changes to the wine could further enhance the felling of lower acidity, both of which contribute to improve taste as the associated astringency and sour taste recedes. A high sugar content is another factor is a wine’s ageability as fructose is the slowest to age from among a wine’s various components. This is one of the reasons that Sauternes ages for so long (and certainly provides the kosher wine world with its currently longest ageable wines (see the list below)), as well as the various fortified wines like Port and Madeira. Alcohol is a volatile component in the wine and lower levels of alcohol generally help with a wine’s ageability (other than in fortified wines). While the level of alcohol in a wine doesn’t change after fermentation, the different stages in a wine’s evolution can cause the alcohol to feel more or less pronounced.

Another important factor in the aging of wine is oxygen, which can be both friend and foe to a wine. While alcohol’s interaction with oxygen yields acetic acid (a/k/a vinegar) and turns the color of a wine into an unpleasant brown (with acid protecting the wine from this phenomenon much like a little lemon juice protects a cut apple from turning brown), it is also responsible for the evolution of a wines aromas from the predominately fruity notes into the desired harmonious combination of fruit, oak and tertiary aromas (which develop as the wine ages (e.g. nuts, earth, mushroom and spices) and are different from secondary aromas which are derived from the winemaking process, including fermentation (e.g. vanilla, toast, cedar wood) or the primary aromas which come from the fruit itself (e.g. blackberry, plum). The oxidation of tartaric acid in a wine contributes to the development of certain of the aforementioned tertiary aromas. Obviously the speed with which a wine interacts with oxygen is a primary factor in how it evolves. Oak barrels, corks and even glass are all porous in varying degrees, allowing the wine to come into slow and limited contact with oxygen to facilitate the wine’s development without being damaged by overexposure and obviously decanting younger wines provides them with a faster level of oxygenation which can facilitate a more pleasurable experience in many wines.

While I love the depth, maturity and complexity of mature wines, it is important to note that, unlike the voluptuous aromas and rich, fruity flavors of younger wines which are appealing to the majority of wine drinkers, the dark and mysterious tertiary notes found in older wines can be harder to appreciate, similar to the natural process towards gaining appreciation for the funky barnyard notes prevalent in many Old World wines. However, once wine drinkers spend a few yours enjoying the rich and fruity pleasure of newer wines, they are able to better appreciate the added complexity older wines gain as the age (not to mention their representation of days past and/or connection to important milestones such as birth or anniversary year wines). One thing to note is that some wines have the ability to last for decades but they don’t necessarily change or improve much over that time (Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a good example of such a genre of wine).

However, in order to ensure that your wines reach their desired maturity in the best condition, care needs to be given to proper storage conditions during the wines aging. The two biggest concerns during a wine’s aging period are waiting too long to open the wine, only to find it is past its peak (the period of a wine’s life where the various compounds are at the highest level of harmony and completely in balance with each other – a period that can last several years) or worse, spoiled once it reaches (or prior to reaching) hat stage. In order to avoid the first, one needs to ascertain the proper drinking window for the wine (and keep track of it over the multiple years of aging the better wines require). Avoiding the second pitfall is primarily facilitated by proper storage conditions that eliminate most of the opportunities for the wine to oxidize before you get to it. While some wines spoil even under the most pristine of conditions, this is a rare occurrence and usually due to flaws from the winemaking process, bottling or the cork itself (including the TCA bacteria which can cause a wine to be “corked” or faulty corks that do not provide a sufficient seal). I will briefly touch on both issues, starting with drinking windows.

The second most common question I get with respect to my wine writing (after why I refuse to score wines) is how I determine the optimal time any particular wine should be consumed or its drinking window. The specifics of this are far beyond the scope of this newsletter, whose length has already exceeded the norm, but the simple (and over generalizing) answer is experience. While there are a number of companies out there that claim to use science to analyze all the various chemical compounds and potential reactions they may undergo in order to ascertain this, they are inconclusive at best and far beyond the reach of any wine writer who tastes and reviews close to 3,000 different wines every year. Instead, we tend to rely on past experience with prior vintages or even other wines produced by the same winery, both of which can give an indication as to the general age-worthiness of any particular winemaking style. Tasting the wine throughout its evolution from the barrel, through bottling until its release also helps navigate the speed with which the wine is (and thus may continue to) evolving. Whenever possible, I also taste wines over a 48 hour period during which it undergoes various manipulations meant to at least partially simulate the aging process. These include decanting the wine and conducting multiple tastings over that period and more aggressively aerating the wine using a Vinaturi or similar tool (for extremely closed wines I have been known to process a portion of the wine through a blender for some insight into what the wine may look like after two decades – this can give a whole new meaning to “blended wine”). I also try to re-taste as many of the ageable wines at least annually to see how they are developing (yet another great thing about the Rosh Chodesh Club). The amazing Coravin can also be helpful in this regard as it allows you use a single bottle to track a wine’s evolution of a period of several months (or maybe even years) without requiring the sacrifice of an entire bottle each time (more on drinking windows and the Coravin in a future newsletter).

One of the worst things for any wine lover who has managed to patiently wait for his treasured wine over the many years of required aging is to open it and find it has spoiled. Avoiding this is relatively simple and while there are many storage options with prohibitive costs, providing solid storage conditions for your liquid treasures doesn’t have to involve an immense amount of time, effort or money . As noted above, in order to achieve the wide variety of subtle reactions that occur as a wine ages, it needs a stable temperature of around 55 degrees, protection from direct light, relative humidity of 70% and as little movement as possible. The cold allows the desired reactions to occur at their natural pace while preventing other reactions that could impair the wine and which occur at higher temperatures. Even very short exposure to extreme temperatures (such as those present in the trunk of a car or non-air-conditioned delivery vehicle) can cause unwanted reactions and ruin the wine. Exposure to too much ultraviolet light can cause otherwise stable organic compounds to degrade at an unnatural pace and have a negative impact on the wine so you want to make sure your wine is in a dark cool environment (or a wine fridge with a UV-proof door).

An adequate level of humidity is necessary to ensure the cork doesn’t dry out and shrink which will let in oxygen-rich air and all its disastrous effect on your wine. On the flip side, an excessive amount of humidity can cause mold to form on the cork with the potential to contaminate the wine or, at lower level, ruin the wine’s label. Last, excessive movement or vibrations can severely disturb a wine’s aging process so best to avoid touching the bottles as much as possible (avoiding vibrations is one of the reasons not to use a kitchen refrigerator for long-term storage – the compressor’s vibrations will wreak havoc with the aging process). Obviously these are the best conditions for any wine, but for wines you intend to drink within six months, you should be OK as long as you keep them under 70 degrees and away from direct sunlight. Keep in mind that regardless of how perfect your home storage conditions are, you cannot control the provenance of the wine before you have acquired it. This goes to newly released wines that may suffer from poor transport conditions and buying older vintages, where obtaining 100% certainty as to proper provenance is impossible. As such, finding wine sources that you trust is imperative in this regard.

Knowing the pleasures of aged wine and understanding the storage requirements necessary for the aging process leave only the question of which wines to age. Obviously the best place to start is this newsletter which regularly recommends great wines across many price points along with drinking windows and recommendations on when to drink (and how to “prepare” the wine for drinking). While not sufficiently accurate even as a generalization, a decent starting point is that the more expensive wines are more likely to be ageable as they are typically those from higher-quality grapes which spend time aging in oak prior to their release. While the world of kosher wine doesn’t yet produce wines that can age for 50 years or more, things are steadily improving and there are a nice number of wines that can age for 10, 20 or even 30 years (only a handful and predominately Sauternes wines in this category) from their vintage year, and I see no reason that number will continue to rise over time. I have included below a list of some wines currently available on the market that will age (i.e. improve) over the next five to ten years (or longer), but remember, these recommendations are assuming pristine storage conditions for the wine from release. While there are a number of more affordable wines on this list, the majority of wines with significant long-term aging ability are going to be n the pricey side. In my opinion, when evaluating the “value” of a wine (or whether it is “worth it”), its long-term aging ability plays a significant role.

Capçanes, Peraj Ha’Abib, 2012-14
Capçanes, La Flor, Grenache & Carignan, 2013-14
Carmel, Limited Edition, 2011-12
Château de Rayne-Vigneau, Sauternes, 2014
Château Haut-Condissas, 2011-12
Château La Tour Carnet, 2013
Château Lafon-Rochet, 2010
Château Montviel Pomerol 2014
Château Piada, Sauternes, 2013
Château Sérilhan, 2012
Château Smith Haut-Lafitte, 2014
Covenant, Cabernet Sauv. (&Solomon), 2013-15
Domaine du Castel, Grand Vin 2013-14
Domaine Rose Camille, 2011-12
Elvi Herenza, Reserva, Rioja, 2010
Four Gates, Merlot, M.S.C., 2012
Elvi, Clos Mesorah, 2013-14
Flam, Noble, 2011-12
Four Gates Frère Robaire 2011
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Katzrin, 2011
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Blanc de Blancs, 2008-09
Gvaot Masada 2013-2014
Hajdu, Proprietary Red Blend, 2014
Herzog, Cabernet Sauv. (Chalk Hill, Clone 6 & Alex. Valley), 2014
Matar, CB, 2013
Moulin du Château La Clide, 2011
Recanati, Special Reserve, Red, 2013
Tenuta Monchiero, Barolo, 2010
Tzora Misty Hills, 2013-14
Yatir, Forest, 2012