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Understanding Wines and Vines

Wines that Age Well - An Overview by Variety and Region

Whether you are stocking a wine cellar for bottle-aging wine or just shopping the “old and rare” section of your favorite wine shop, there are a few things you should know:

  • How does wine change over time?
  • What types of wines age well?
  • Roughly how long will they continue to improve or hold?

 

Of course, every individual bottling is unique. Varietal blend, terroir, winemaking techniques and vintage make a huge difference in the capacity to age. Storage and handling of the bottle at the winery, your home and in between have a big impact too. And wine doesn’t age in a linear fashion. There are quiet periods, times of rapid development and plateaus of consistency. Nonetheless, general guidelines are useful when planning a cellar.

First, let’s clarify what “aging” or “maturing” means with respect to wine. Every wine left undrunk will get older. Only a small percentage of those wines will age or mature in a positive way. Wines that age well tend to be well-balanced overall but have high levels of at least two of the following: phenolics (such as tannins), acidity and sugar. To aficionados, age-worthy wines are better — sometimes much better — after some years in bottle than they were when first released. Unsubtly bright fruit, oaky flavors and tannins or harsh acidity in red wines may be replaced by a smooth, supple palate, mellowed fruit and, eventually, tertiary flavors of cigar box, leather, earth, etc. Aging also tames white wines with very high acidity and allows more complexity to develop.

When wines that are not age-worthy get old, the lively flavors dissipate but nothing attractive takes their place. And the wine’s structure, be it acidity or tannin, may either disappear or become overly strong in the absence of fruit. It’s better to drink a wine to soon than too late!

The following is an overview of how a variety of popular wines do, or don’t, age. Remember that even within specific categories of a particular type of wine, ageability will vary dramatically based upon vintage, producer, etc. Unless otherwise noted, the comments below pertain to wine in 750ml bottles. Magnums last longer, 375ml bottles age more quickly. Before making decisions involving large outlays of cash, be sure to check into the track record of the specific wine involved.

Wines you should consume within one year or less of bottling

Beaujolais (except Village and Cru)
Beaujolais Nouveau (drink within two months)
Bottled wine with plastic or rubber corks (drink within 6 months or less)
Boxed wine (drink within 6 months or less)
Jug wine
Light, sweet wines (Moscato/Muscat, White Zinfandel, etc.)
Most European wines designated as table wine or Vin de Pays (and it’s equivalents in other countries)
Wines sold for $15 or less
Non-vintage sparkling wine from anywhere except Champagne, including Asti, California sparkling wine, Cava, Prosecco and Sekt
Most fortified wine, including ruby Port, tawny Port, light Sherry (especially Fino and Manzanilla), most Madeira, Rutherglen Muscat, Vin Doux Naturel, etc.
Rioja Joven

Wines that are usually best within two years or so of bottling

Albariño
Barbera
Carmenére
Chardonnay (unoaked, except some Chablis)
Chenin Blanc (except from the Loire Valley)
Dolcetto
Grenache (except Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat and the finest versions from California and Australia)
Gewürtztraminer (dry, except Alsace and the best from New Zealand)
Icewine
Malbec
Marsanne
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris (except top quality Alsace)
Riesling (Austria, California, German QBA)
Rioja Crianza
Rosé
Sangiovese
Sauvignon Blanc (dry)
Sémillon (except Sauternes and top dry wines from Australia or Bordeaux)
Viognier
Zinfandel (except relatively high-acid, high-tannin wines from top producers)


Wines typically best within 2 - 6 years

Bordeaux (dry white)
Cabernet Franc (except Bordeaux and Bourgueil)
Chardonnay (oaked, except Burgundy 1er and Grand Cru)
Chianti Riserva
Grüner Veltliner
Merlot
Nebbiolo (Langhe, New World)
Petite Sirah
Pinot Gris (dry Alsace)
Pinotage
Riesling (Alsace, Austria’s Wachau, German Trocken, New Zealand)
Rioja (white)
Sauvignon Blanc (sweet from the New World)
Sémillon (dry, oaked)
Shiraz
Syrah (Crozes-Hermitage)

Wines typically best within 2 - 10 years

 

65-Hanzell-Pinot-Label

Barbaresco
Barolo
Burgundy (outside Cote d’Or, ripe vintages within Cote d’Or)
Cabernet Sauvignon (except top producers from Australia, California, Italy and Washington)
Gewürtztraminer (Alsace Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles)
Grenache (Priorat, top wines from Australia and California)
Madeira (Colheita)
Mourvedre
Pinot Noir (Australia, California, New Zealand, Oregon, Switzerland and German Spatburgunder)
Rioja
Roussanne (drink within 3 years or after 7)
Sauvignon Blanc (top quality New Zealand, Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre and California Fumé Blanc)
Syrah (California, Cornas, New Zealand, Saint-Joseph, Washington)
Tempranillo

Wines from top producers in great years can age much longer than would normally be expected. I tasted this 1965 Hanzell Pinot Noir Sonoma Valley last week. It was a beautiful example of fully developed Pinot. Still ruby at the core and maintaining its acidity, the wine offered aromas and flavors of baked ham skin, dry and moist leaves, cherry, mushrooms, thyme, smoke and more. The finish was long too. Remarkable!

Wines typically best within 4 - 15 years

Bordeaux (dry white from a classified growth)
Bordeaux (red, Right Bank)
Burgundy (white, Grand Cru or 1er Cru)
Cabernet Franc (Bordeaux and Bourgueil)
Chablis (Grand Cru)
Chateuneuf du Pape (white, drink within 4 year or after 8)
Chianti Classico
Nebbiolo (Gattinara)
Pinot Gris (Alsace Vendange Tardive)
Riesling (Alsace Grand Cru, Australia)
Syrah (Cote Rotie)

Wines that are typically best within 5 - 20 years

Barbaresco (top producers and vintages)
Brunello di Montalcino
Burgundy (red, Grand Cru or 1er Cru)
Cabernet Sauvignon (top producers from Austalia, California, Italy and Washington)
Chateauneuf-du-Pape (red)
Marsanne (Hermitage and select Australian producers, best after 10 years)
Merlot (Spring Mountain)
Riesling (Alsace Vendange Tardive, German Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese)
Sauternes Savennierés (best early or after 8 years)
Sémillon (dry and unoaked from Hunter Valley)
Shiraz (top wines)
Sparkling wine (vintage, not from Champagne)
Super Tuscan
Syrah (Hermitage)
Vouvray (dry and off-dry, best early or after 8 years)

Wines typically best within 5 - 25+ years

Barolo (top producer and vintage)
Bordeaux (red, Left Bank)
Champagne (vintage)
Coteaux du Layon
Madeira (vintage)
Riesling (German Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein)
Rioja Gran Reserva

If you need a wine that might be enjoyable after 50 years, look for these from top producers in great vintages

1911-riesling

Barolo (traditional style with high-acidity and tannins)
Bordeaux (red, Left Bank)
Burgundy (red, Grand Cru or 1er Cru from a cool year)
Madeira (vintage)
Riesling (German Spatlese, Auslese)
Sauternes
Vintage Port
Vouvray (sweet)

I recently tasted the wine shown at right. It's a 1911 Riesling and was truly excellent. It was clear amber with a water white rim. Aromas and flavors included dried apricot, dried orange peel, dill, tart apple and mahogany. Though it was probably akin to a spatlese upon release, the wine I tasted was fully dry. It still had mouth-watering acidity. It also had staying power. It was the first wine poured in the evening and neither it's aromas nor flavors were significantly diminished after three hours in glass.

These estimates are based upon my own experience coupled with guidance offered in the writings of Michael Broadbent, Oz Clarke, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson. Share your experiences with aged wine in the comments area below.

You may also enjoy these articles:
3 Fun Ways to Learn Your Preferences in Aged Wine
How to Start a Wine Collection: Part 1

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Body Count - On Describing the Body of Wine

Despite being odorless and tasteless, body is an important character in wine. It adds to, or detracts from, our pleasure in drinking. In blind tastings body provides a clue as to varietal and regional origin. It is a key factor in wine and food pairing too, ideal matches being similar in weight.

What is body in wine?

Body is the perceived thickness of a wine in one’s mouth. Think about how water feels in your mouth. Now think about vodka. Vodka feels more viscous than water because of the alcoholic content. Maple syrup is much thicker than water because of the dissolved sugar.

The amount of body in a wine is determined by the levels of alcohol, sugar, other soluble fruit extract (pectin, phenols, proteins, etc) and acidity. Perceived viscosity increases with the content of the first three elements. The acidity in wine is less viscous than the other elements and the higher the  acidity the lower alcohol tends to be. Therefore, wines with a lot of acidity tend to be lower in viscosity than their lower acid wines. However, some high acid wines are also very high in sugars and they can be full-bodied.

Why does alcohol feel more viscous than water? The longer a molecule and the more easily it creates hydrogen bonds, the more viscous it will be. Water bonds readily but is the smallest of molecules. Therefore, water molecules aren't easlly “tangled” with others. Ethyl alcohol feels thicker because its molecules are larger and it also bonds easily.

800px-Water-3D-balls800px-Ethanol-3D-balls
Molecules of water (left) and ethyl alcohol (right). The structure of the latter causes it to snag on other molecules. That resistance in movement is viscosity.

Wine Body Descriptors

Body gets the usual assortment of semi-confusing (or entirely confusing) wine-speak descriptors. Without formal training or a secret decoder ring, quantitative descriptions such as “medium-plus” seem abstract. Qualitative comments—lithe, supple, luxurious, opulent—are poetic but only a little more helpful.

Here’s a table showing the five standard “quantitative” descriptors, their association with different types of milk—a convenient reference—as well as some common, creative descriptors. Some adjectives fall into more than one range. That’s because their use varies by varietal. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may be elegant at medium+ body whereas Beaujolais Nouveau may not. Some descriptors also have multiple applications. Feminine may refer to body, but also to aromatics, structure and balance. There are also a lot more flowery celebrations of full-bodied wines than those of medium body or less. That’s indicative of both the relative scarcity of high-quality, light-bodied wines and of what critics tend to prefer.

Light

skim milk

angular, lean, delicate, feminine

     
Medium-   angular, lean, delicate, feminine, elegant, lithe
     
Medium whole milk lean, elegant, feminine, supple, lithe, oily
     
Medium+   elegant, supple, lithe, oily, rich, weighty, masculine
     
Full half-and-half rich, weighty, masculine, creamy, opulent, fat, unctuous, chewy, plump, decadent, fleshy, lush, massive, viscous, high glycerin, voluptuous, Rubenesque

bodyThe 5-point scale of wine body, from light to full, is useful but we have to remember that wine is analog not digital. In the real world there’s a smooth continuum of increasing weight from light through full. Terms such as medium+ express a range of possible viscosities, not a single specific consistency.

Not all the ranges are the same “size” either. “Medium” is narrow, in part to combat our natural tendency to play it safe by calling everything medium. “Light” is a smaller range than “Full.” That’s because there is a finite limit to how little body a wine can have but the ceiling for body is quite high.

The ranges blend from one to the next. There are no absolute dividing lines between them. Body also varies with serving temperature—the warmer the wine the less viscous it is—and the type of food, if any, with which a wine is paired. Candidates for advanced wine certification (such as Diploma, Wine & Spirits) are required to pinpoint just one body designation for any given wine. Wine reviewers often use a two-step range though, because they don’t know the conditions under which a consumer will be tasting. I often use the slightly more precise “nearly full-bodied” to indicate that a wine is on the border between medium+ and full.

One of my pet peeves is wine reviews expressing a three-step range for a wine. I see this frequently, even from celebrated wine advocates. They’ll tell you a particular red wine is “medium to full-bodied.” Virtually all high-quality red wines from the New World, and most from the Old World, fall into that range. It’s like saying a particular breed of cat has fur. Not terribly illuminating.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

I Want Mour(vedre)

Mourvèdre is like a middle brother. It’s not big and strong like Syrah. Syrah exudes power, even when Auntie Viognier pins a little white flower to the lapel of it’s black jacket. It can carry a barrel of wine all by itself.

Nor is Mourvèdre fresh and rosy-cheeked, like that cute little Grenache everyone fawns over these days. Grenache is thin-skinned and can be high-spirited, but people always focus on its cheerful and light-hearted nature, it’s potential.

MourvedreMourvedre just hangs around quietly, doing what it’s told. “Mourvèdre, give some of your grilled meat to Syrah. He does all that heavy lifting.” "Mourvèdre, give your thick leather gloves to Grenache. He's got thin blood.” Or, even worse, ”What’s that smell? Mourvèdre Monastrell Mataro, is that you? Take a shower, boy!” And in group photos, Mourvèdre gets shuffled around to fill in a gap or hide something distracting in the background.

Then there are the rumors. “Something about that Mourvèdre boy isn’t right, Mildred. He’s so rough! They say in France people called him Estrangle-Chien. Dog strangler! Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, I say.” Personally, I think Mourvèdre is just misunderstood.

Facts About Mourvèdre

For one, Mourvèdre isn’t French but Spanish in origin. The Spanish can’t decide whether it’s from Catalonia or Valencia, but they do agree it’s name is Monastrell. Don’t ask...

It is true, however, that Mourvèdre is best-known for its use in wines from southern France. It usually takes a supporting role in the blends of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Bandol. On rare occasions, it gets center stage.

Mourvedre is late-ripening. And it is prone to excessive vigor. That makes proper ripening even more difficult. You don’t want to drink wines made from under-ripe Mourvèdre lest you experience those dog-strangling tannins. Nor do you want it under-age. Mourvèdre is at its best when fully ripe and given time to soften and develop in barrel and/or bottle.

What is Mourvèdre like, at it’s best then? It is dark red and structured, with moderate to high alcohol. It’s fruit is often reminiscent of briary blackberry, sometimes plum. Its most distinct aromas and flavors are earthy though: leather, wild game, garrigue, clove. The wine can be truly delicious, exotic and a perfect match for foods that echo its flavors such as Mongolian lamb, game meat pie, sausage of wild boar and dried herb.

Despite it's delectable potential, Mourvedre isn’t among the top three red Rhone varieties in California by acreage. Or the top four. Carignane places fourth. Carignane?

Top 5 Red Rhone Varietals in CA
Variety 2010 CA Acres Under Vine
Syrah 19084
Petite Sirah 7544
Grenache 6011
Carignane 3342
Mourvèdre 847

Data from http://www.nass.usda.gov

Mourvèdre is a distant fifth. While Syrah, Grenache and Petite Sirah stand on the podium after the race, and Carignane is getting kudos for over-achieving, Mourvedre shuffles back to the locker room unnoticed. But I like it and seek out Mourvedre varietal wines.

Four Mourvèdre Varietal Wines from California

Despite Mourvèdre’s under-the-radar status, I’m pleased to say it does get full varietal focus from a number of California wineries. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed:

Anglim Mourvèdre Hastings Ranch: The first, and current, vintage of Mourvèdre from Anglim is 2007. Leather and white pepper aromas are followed by black and red fruit and spice. The tannins are satisfyingly mouth-coating, smooth enough to allow immediate drinking but sufficiently robust for aging.

Cline Small Berry Mourvèdre: Flavors of bold dark fruit, tobacco leaf (common in Mourvèdre) and eucalyptus characteristic of the small, low-yield vineyard are framed by tannins kept friendly by a gentle crush and 14 months in French oak.

Quivira Mourvèdre Wine Creek Ranch Estate: Quivira tends the Mourvedre very carefully in their biodynamic estate vineyard, adds a healthy splash of Grenache and then lets it soften in huge French oak foudres and puncheons. The wine is full of blackberry and plum complemented by the grape’s natural aspects of spice and earthiness.

Tablas Creek Mourvèdre: I often find this wine to have more red fruit than in most Mourvèdre I've tried. There is also dark plum and the essential meat and black spice notes.

A Mourvèdre Tasting Opportunity

At the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting this coming Sunday, March 25, be sure to taste Syrah, Grenache, Rhone whites and even Carignane. But don’t overlook Mourvedre. It’s definitely worth a try.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Wine Terms: What is Millerandage?

There is typically little variation in the size of grapes on a single bunch. Millerandage refers to a condition where there a numerous very small berries on bunch along with those of normal size. Millerandage is also known as “hen and chickens” or, less commonly, “pumpkin and peas.” Individual under-sized grapes are sometimes called shot berries, a reference to the small pellets fired from shotguns.

millerandage
A grapevine in the Livermore Valley showing mild millerandage due to bad weather during flowering. 

shot-berries-with-arrow
A close up of Pinot Noir with a few shot berries indicated by the arrow. 

The primary problem resulting from millerandage is reduced yield. There are simply fewer properly-sized, ripe grapes per bunch from which to get juice. The photo above shows just minor millerandage. It’s not ideal, but won’t have a significant impact on production.

The undersized grapes result from flawed fertilization of the ovary during flowering. (The ovaries eventually turn into grapes.) Such grapes will have fewer seeds than the normal ones and may also not ripen fully. The most common cause of millerandage is poor weather during flowering. That was the case for the grapes shown above. However, millerandage can also result from a disease of the vine called fanleaf virus or a boron deficiency in the soil.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.

New Wine and Viticulture Classes in San Diego

San_Diego_skyline01.jpg

At one time, before Prohibition, San Diego County led California in grape production. The industry was slow to recover from Prohibition and, after WWII, much of the vineyard land was lost to urban sprawl. The fires of 2007 also took a toll on the wineries of Ramona Valley. But the area is making a comeback now and county residents are showing a lot of interest in grape-growing. A recent viticulture demo at a nursery drew 150 people.

Now there is a program covering both viticulture and wine starting up in San Diego at Cuyamaca College. These classes complement the school’s existing horticultural programs. I think they’re a great value too.

The Basics of Growing Wine Grapes is a seven-session course. It will meet on Monday evenings at 6pm beginning on January 23. It will cover grape varieties, parts of the vine, rootstock, climate, geology, the seasonal cycle from bloom to veraison to harvest to winter dormancy, trellising and pruning, and vineyard practices for high quality grapes.

Wines of the World is a six-week survey of the world’s major wine regions and wines. You’ll learn the differences between Pinot Noir from Burgundy, California and Oregon, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bordeaux and Napa Valley, etc. At the end of the class, you’ll know how to decode wine labels from different countries, make sense of wine lists and ask the right questions at wine shops. These classes meet on Wednesdays at 6pm starting on January 25.

The classes are taught by Donn Rutkoff. He’s been in the retail and wholesale wine business since 2002 where he represented hot California brands such as Staglin and Kosta Browne as well as the best of Burgundy, Germany and more. He has an MBA from San Francisco State and completed three years of study in viticulture and wine technology at Napa Valley College.

The courses are just $60 each (per course, not per session). Learn more about the classes at their Grossmont-Cuyamaca webpage. To register, call (619) 660-4350.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.