This is a common sentence in wine reviews: “Should continue to develop for 10-12 years.” You see it all over the Wine Spectator. In the Wine Advocate, it’s characteristically more enthusiastic: “Explosive flavors of dark chocolate, hazelnut parfait drizzled with fresh Tahitian vanilla sauce and crushed, fire-roasted Bing cherries. Will be fantastic for the next 25 years and beyond.”

But it’s a lie.

That’s right. I’m not going to be polite and say, “It’s a guess.”

The most mainstream and popular American wine critics’ estimates about how long wines will age are cynical, ignorant, expensive lies.

Here’s why.

Wine is different now than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Many wines are made from grapes that were riper and lower in acidity. The great Bordeaux houses, the top Burgundies, the best from California: very few wineries have been unaffected by the availability of better viticultural technology that allows grapes to get riper. And this is most true at the modern wineries that achieve the highest scores with these publications.

This is not an anti-alcohol rant. Many, if not most, people prefer riper wines. I understand that. Moreover, I’m not going to argue that wines were better 30 years ago. They weren’t. Great vintages were much more rare, and bad vintages were often just about undrinkable. My point is not nostaglia.

Promises, promises…

My point is this: When we taste a wine today from 1989 or 1992, it doesn’t tell us anything about how today’s wines will taste in 15 or 20 years, because today’s wines are different. We don’t have a track record for knowing how top-scoring wines of today will age. And what little we do know — which I’ll get to in a moment — is not promising for their longevity.

I chose the word “lie,” rather than “mistake,” because critics and publications are smart enough to know this.

Did 1997 cabs from Napa age as well as the “vintage of the century” promised?

The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator continue to refuse to add alcohol percentage to their reviews. The Spectator even lists case production on every wine, but not alcohol percentage, which is easy for anyone to understand and would tell you a lot more about the wine. They like and defend the very ripe style of wine, which, again, is fine: it’s easier, more consistent, and more popular with their audience to choose the ripest wine out of 24 than, say, the most food-friendly or the most complex.

But anybody who opens a lot of old bottles knows very ripe wines from the more recent past didn’t age well. For California, critics announced a “vintage of the century” in 1997, with huge ratings for some luscious, delectable, ripe wines. Most wineries will tell you those ’97s are dead now, while the lean, low-rated 1998s are in many cases delicious today.

There is still debate over whether the ripe 1982 Bordeaux wines aged as well as others in that decade. Eric Asimov tasted them and agreed with Robert Parker that they have. Those two minds don’t meet all that often, so it’s worth noting. But “ripe” in 1982 meant something entirely different from “ripe” in 1997, and something different again in 2012.

Wines are objectively, measurably different now. Alcohol percentage is one such measurement, not the only one to be sure, and likely not as important in ageability as total acidity and pH. But alcohol percentage is the measurement most easily available to the public.

I think of the 1997 California Cabernets a lot when thinking of vintage projections. I call these publications “cynical” because I know their critics have tasted some of these 1997 wines, and they must be good enough tasters to recognize that the wines’ freshness is gone. Yet they don’t report this or take it into consideration in the effusive, fruit-forward comments on how long today’s wines will last.

I call this “ignorant” because any sommelier you talk to, as well as most winemakers, will tell you that low-acid, high-alcohol wines will not age well. Not reporting this is to ignore other people’s expert opinions.

And I call this “expensive” because these publications are telling their readers to waste money.

Will today’s wines age as promised by wine magazines? (photo: Steffen Haussman)

Surely somewhere at the front of the magazine is a disclaimer, perhaps in fine print. But in the body of the tasting notes themselves, which is all most readers see — particularly when searching online — there is no such hedge except the word “should.” What percentage of certainty do you think “should continue to develop for 10 to 12 years” implies? In other words, if I say, “this Cabernet should be best in 2023,” do you think that means there’s a 75% chance that the wine will be best then? Higher?

Sorry, wine review publishers, but “should” does not imply the high degree of uncertainty that actually exists.

If you buy a case of a very ripe, low-acid Cabernet that’s delicious today, and you put nine bottles away to drink in a decade because you read in a magazine that the wine “should” be delicious in 10-12 years, you might be throwing away the money you spent on those nine bottles. You won’t realize for 10 years that you wasted your money. And you’re likely to blame yourself, or your storage, or the cork, or the gods. You’re not likely to blame the critic who misled you.

First-growth Bordeaux and prime Napa Cabernet have become investments as much as they are beverages. As long as nobody opens them — as long as they’re shuttled through auction houses and displayed as trophies, like limited-production action figures still in their wrapping — it doesn’t matter what they taste like. But if future auction prices are expected to have any relationship to drinkability, then prominent wine critics, whose reviews are cited to establish value, should try to have some accountability. At least they should be honest and write, “Delicious now; perhaps it will be more so in 10 years.” (Although the really honest thing would be to say, “Who really knows what this will taste like in 15 years? Sha-la lalalala live for today.”)

By the time any of these trophies are opened, the critics who pumped up their value may be retired, having left a trail of dead wine in cellars around the world. Now there’s a legacy.

 

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://palatepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/blake2.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.[/author_info] [/author]

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

  • http://www.polishwineguide.com Wojciech Bońkowski

    An interesting post on an interesting subject. One that most wine lovers and serious wine critics have been pondering over for years: how different today’s wine are from those in the past.
    Some are very different: California and Bordeaux are cases in points. Burgundy perhaps less: a vintage like 2010 I think is not massively different from the late 1980s.
    Some wines are made virtually in the same way: Vintage Port for example. So tasting a 1983 VP will give you a good insight into the ageing potential of, say, a 2007.

    There’s another point you didn’t mention. In my specialist subject, Italian wines, there has been a strong undercurrent of criticism toward new-wave wines for being low-acid, higher in alcohol than in the past, and very oaky too – less ageworthy. This was used (I confess to have participated) against Brunello, top Chiantis, and especially Barolos.
    The opposite is slowly proving to the be truth. Those “low-acid” oaky Barolos from the 1990s have aged as well, if not better than the more traditional driven wines from the 1980s. Most 100% barrique Barolos from 1999, 1998 and 1997 are still on the up curve. I’d love to say that higher alcohol and lower acid handicaps a wine’s ageing potential because personally, I would like to see (and am seeing) a return towards more elegant wines. But in all honesty, ageworthiness of structured red wines is a bit more complex, and there are many surprises even among the blockbuster style wines.

  • Robert C

    If it were my money and I was buying several cases of some high-end wine, I would taste a bottle every 2-3 years just to see if the critic was correct or if I just wasted 500/bottle on wishes and sparkly,fluffy clouds.

  • http://www.cgcw.com Charlie Olken

    Blake, I think we can all agree that the sages who overhyped 1997 and misunderstood and damned 1998 CA Cabs missed the boat. This is not new news. But neither is it totally accurate, in my view, either as to the value of those vintages or as accurate barometers of what the 2007 and 2009s are going to do.

    I have just tasted a batch of 97s. They were purposely chosen for the mid-quality, positive reviews (* in Connoisseurs’ Guide lingo equates to upper 80 points) and found them generally OK. That they did not have fresh fruit is not a damning problem in wines 15+ years old. How long should wine have to remain “fresh” to have aged successfully?

    But, I digress from my main point. The wines of the late 2000s are far better balanced than the wines of 1997, which, I agree is the poster child for ripeness at the expense of balance.

    I have no doubt that the most recent Cabs from folks like Continuum, Chappellet, Spottswoode, Rubicon and even old chestnuts like BVPR are going to age very well. Will they age forty years like the BV 68 and 70? I can’t say that they will, but the Bordeaux 66s and 70s, heralded vintages both, have not. 15-20 years is about all anyone can demand of a wine. If they age 30, like the 82s, well, we can all agree that Bordeaux 82 was pretty damn good.

    With all due apologies, I think you have overstated the case and would humbly disagree as to the extent of the misleading rhetoric, especially as regards the best of the recent wines.

  • http://www.wine-zag.com Adam Japko

    California Cabernet profiles have changed indeed from the seventies to the eighties, the eighties to the nineties, and then the nineties to current day, but predicting maturity has never been a science even in Bordeaux. Just not sure it is cynical nor ignorant, as you say, but not couched with appropriate uncertainty is misleading considering reviewers’ personal experiences with unpredictability. Here is an example of Parker on one wine, 1982 Vieux Chateaux Certan, with multiple reviews and forecasts on aging potential over time:

    Tasted 1993: capable of lasting 10-15 more years
    Tasted 1998: this is a fully mature wine that begs to be drunk over the next 7-8 years
    Tasted 2000: Fully mature, it requires consumption over the next 5-7 years
    TASTED 2009: Not yet fully mature…it is a beauty that can be drunk now and over the next 15-16 years

    HAH! Not so funny though. These are living breathing things. Aging forecasts are nothing more than a current day snapshot and best guess. And, readiness for drinking is a subjective moment. But a lie, I don’t think so. That’s harsh.

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  • Dick Minnis

    Spot on accurate…age-ability is chemistry driven and to pretend otherwise is a fraud.

    • Dan

      “Spot on accurate…age-ability is chemistry driven and to pretend otherwise is a fraud.”

      That’s a bit like saying that the “taste” of a wine is chemistry driven, or that football is an inefficient way to move an ellipsoid from point A to point B…

      Charlie: great points.

  • Abigail

    Good points, all. However I have little sympathy for folks willing to spend real money ($$$) on wine and storage who also aren’t willing to spend a little bit of time learning the facts (like the ones you presented).

    Also, I’d like to point out that Sommeliers (like me) and other industry professionals are trapped by the very culture of wine drinking that has developed over the past 30+ years (driven significantly BY wine writers and pretentious old white guys). Most people don’t realize that it’s OKAY to drink contemporary wines young (because indeed the are crafted for it), and assume it has to be ageworthy to be good or worth the price. I am a proponent of education, and would rather tell the truth than sell a bottle, but I know I’m in the minority.

    Seems like we have even more to blame on wine writers…

  • http://www.pdwr.co Doug Wilder

    Blake,

    In some regards I agree with you. There is no way to predict with any precision the optimal year to open a wine. I think the best anyone can hope for is to recommend a reasonable range. When I conceived my wine review publication, I wanted it to be full of as much information as possible breaking down the composition, case production and ABV. I also add in my own impression for a drinking window that usually starts between now and a year or two and usually stretches no more than 10 – 12 years. This final subjective piece of information has been a constant for me throughout my career so it is useful as a yardstick for tasting older wines. Over the past couple years I have had the chance to taste retrospective flights of a pair of independent, domestic estates that made no fundamental adjustments to their winemaking over their history. One of the wineries was Laurel Glen that I tasted in 2007 (25 year vertical), and 2011 (30 year). Although these notes didn’t include drinking windows there were still instances where I was faced with extrapolating the reasonable longevity of a wine that to my methodology should have been out of its ‘sweet spot’ for a number of years. Case in point, the 1997 Laurel Glen received the same score from me in 2007, and 2011 (which surprised me). More recently was a 15 year vertical of Dyer Vineyard from Diamond Mountain, a brand I have followed since their launch and like LG, is from one site. The technical data on these wines rarely varies much even in exceptional vintages. The similarity in the wines allows a taster to make a reasonable assessment of what the threshold could be in a wine. There is no crystal ball. I have seen a few wines I thought were going to hold for a while come up short after a few years, it happens. Plenty of consumers make decisions they may regret later. I used to tell clients that in wines, some are sprinters and others are marathoners. By letting them know certain wines were made in a style that wasn’t going to age well helped them make informed decisions.

    If you want to expand on this thread, Blake, how about comment on critics who assign scores to barrel samples?

    • http://blog.wblakegray.com/ Blake Gray

      Doug: That’s a rant just waiting to happen. Barrel samples are not the same as finished wines.

  • Darcey Fugman

    The notion that the alcohol percentage listed on the label is a true indication of the alcohol in the wine is naive. TTB rules allow a producer to fudge up to 1% in wines over 14% alcohol and up to 1.5% on wines less than 14%. Therefore wines that are labeled 14.1% may actually be 15.1%. The vast majority of wineries use this leeway, particularly now that reviewers have gotten on the bandwagon for lower alcohols. I don’t disagree with your premise, but just don’t think that the alcohol listed on the label is going to help inform someone as to the aging potential of the wine. The question of whether the wine is in balance and the track record of the producer is much more relevant.

    • http://blog.wblakegray.com/ Blake Gray

      Darcey: While I wish that US law required accurate alcohol-by-volume labeling, we have to work with what we have. Wine Spectator runs two numbers on every wine: case production, and a score assigned by a critic. I don’t know if ABV is the most relevant number that could be listed, but it is far more relevant than those two.

  • http://www.martediwinery.com Joseph Miglino

    Thank you Blake for finally saying this out loud. For a long time, I’ve been wondering (whispering) “who gets to say if a wine can or did age well”. A quick study of our wines in Washington says that high price does not guarantee agability. But most think so.