Does ‘age-worthy’ always mean great?: Uncork the Forks

Lenn Thompson and a group of East End winemakers sampled these 2001 Long Island reds. Thompson said a majority of the bottles held up well. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)

Lenn Thompson and a group of East End winemakers sampled these 2001 Long Island reds. Thompson said a majority of the bottles held up well. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)

A lot of winemakers — and admittedly, wine writers — like to talk about how long a wine will age. You may see at the end of a tasting note, either at a winery or in a glossy wine magazine: “Drink now through 2030.” I’ve also heard from local winemakers that customers will occasionally make their buying decisions based in part on how long the pourer says a wine will age in their cellar.

There is a lot of confusion and quite a bit of mythology out there when it comes to these sorts of tasting windows and prophecies.

When wine folks talk about “age-worthiness” they aren’t talking about how long a wine will still be drinkable before it goes bad. Instead, they want to know how long a wine will continue to develop and improve over time before peaking and then fading. In an ideal situation, a young red wine’s rough edges will smooth out, its tannins will become less angular, and primary berry flavors will take on more savory, earthy edges. Tasting windows like “Drink now through 2030” try to predict when a wine will begin to taste its best and when it will decline.

RELATED: LONG ISLAND 2001 REDS — HOW DO THEY HOLD UP TODAY?

I read them. I even write them on occasion. But here’s the thing: These are guesses. They aren’t wild guesses, though. Things like tannins, acidity and even residual sugar impact how a wine will evolve over time. And a winemaker who has been working the same land and making the same wines for many years will understand the evolution of those wines better than most.

Still, no one knows with absolute certainty how that merlot you just bought is going to taste in five, 10 or 20 years, predictions that it will “age for 50 years” be damned. On one hand, not knowing is part of the fun. I love opening the same wine several years apart and comparing my notes. On the other hand, if you tasted it at the tasting room and loved it enough to spend $50 for a bottle, you don’t want to wait too long to drink it, right?

More importantly, if you love it now, what are you waiting for?

If you like it now, and don’t have a lot of experience with more mature wines, you should drink that wine sooner rather than later. Why? Because even if you guess right and drink that merlot eight years and 120 days later, right at the wine’s mythical peak, with the perfect food and the perfect friends, you might not like it. You might even hate it.

I have friends both in and out of the wine industry who love aged wines. I also have friends who hate them. Riesling, a wine that often takes on notes of petrol (yes, as in petroleum) as it matures is a perfect example in my own house. As much as I love the bright, focused fruit and mineral flavors of my favorite rieslings, I also like how the fruit characters change from fresh fruit to preserves with layers of honey and, yes, petrol, that bring complexity.

My wife hates all of that. She likes her riesling right-from-the-tank fresh. And that’s OK. We drink a ton of riesling within a year or two of release. Even wines that probably have the stuffing to improve for many years. She knows what she likes, and I like to keep her happy when I can.

I’ve become far less interested in a wine’s peak. Chasing that “perfect” moment isn’t without risk. I’m trying to consolidate and refocus my wine cellar a bit, so I’ve been opening a fair number of bottles from the early- to mid-2000s over the past several months. I’ve also been dumping about half of them after only a sip or two.

It’s educational, but it’s also heartbreaking. So many of these wines were beautiful in their youth — beautiful enough that I bought more than a bottle or two and wanted to see how they’d develop. Sadly, I’ve dumped several hundred dollars’ worth of wine down the drain as a result.

When I was first learning about wine, I was taught that age-worthiness is a prerequisite to greatness. I’m not so convinced anymore. Some of the best wines I’ve ever drunk were 30-plus years old, but what if a wine tastes its absolute best the day that it’s released and it tastes really, really good? Can’t that be a great wine, too? I’d argue that it can.

My approach and opinions on this topic are ever-changing. Every time I talk to someone who knows more about such things than I do, I learn something new. But today, I think I want to drink more wines earlier, even if it means drinking them before their potential absolute best moment.

Lenn Thompson