What goes into an ‘age-worthy’ wine?: Uncork the Forks

Roman Roth of Wolffer Estate. (Credit: David Benthal)

“To make wines that can age very well is the ultimate pedigree for a winery. Making wines that can age gives a legacy and brings one to par with the greatest wineries in the world.” 

That’s what Roman Roth, partner and winemaker at Wölffer Estate, told me when I asked if making wine that develops and improves for many years matters in a wine world in which most wine is consumed within a few days of purchase. This is the same winery and winemaker that — this time of year anyway — get more attention for rosé, a style where fresher is almost always better, than anything else.

Wölffer makes more rosé every year than most individual local wineries produce overall, but Roth also makes some of the most age-worthy wines in the region, too.

As a quick aside, let’s define what we mean by age-worthy. A wine that holds on and is still drinkable 10, 20 or 30 years after it’s made isn’t age-worthy. To qualify, the wine has to improve over that time, rather than just not turn to vinegar.

Anyway, my conversation with Roth was sparked by tasting three of his latest red wine releases: 2015 Caya Cabernet Franc, 2015 Fatalis Fatum Red Blend and 2014 Christian’s Cuvée Merlot, named for winery founder Christian Wölffer.

All three are drinkable today but will undoubtedly improve for many years to come.

You might be asking, “How does he know? Isn’t this just a guess?”

Well, yes and no. When a wine reviewer offers a drinking window like “best between 2025 and 2040,” that is just a guess. But there are things you can taste in young wines that indicate they should improve with more time in bottle. Tannic structure, acidity and sugar (in the case of dessert wines and some rieslings) will all help a wine evolve over time.

Of course, I also have the advantage of tasting some of the wines Roman Roth has made dating back to the 1990s. More recently, I opened a bottle of his 2005 Christian’s Cuvée and it was beautiful, still showing some primary fruit flavors but also layers of graphite, earth, dried herbs and a meaty, bloody edge that made it so complex. I have one more bottle and I am pretty confident I can let it sit in my cellar for another decade.

Making wines like this isn’t easy. Not every vineyard can grow grapes that make age-worthy wine. Not every winemaker can make them either.

“Every berry counts to make great wine,” Roth told me in an email. “It is many things that need to be done to make an age-worthy wine. It needs amazing vineyard work. It needs a great growing season. The hand labor that Richie [Pisacano, Wölffer’s vineyard manager] and his vineyard team put into every vine, shoot, cluster is amazing!”

In the cellar, he points to long maceration (juice contact with the grape skins), malolactic fermentation in barrels on the lees (dead yeast cells), extended time on that lees and careful racking, which is moving the wine from one container to another to leave sediment behind.

Racking also introduces the wine to air as it is moved, something Roth tries to minimize. “I work with much less oxygen, preventing oxidation,” he said.

Age-worthy wines are labor intensive and their prices often reflect that. But they are also important in a region that still sometimes struggles for accolades.

“It takes time and it needs those ‘Aha!’ moments or surprise moments when you open a 15-year-old bottle of Wölffer Estate or Grapes of Roth and the wine is absolutely stunning. This is a slow process but it is slowly gaining momentum; with time we will get the recognition!” said Roth.

Lenn Thompson, a Pittsburgh, Pa., native, moved to Long Island more than a decade ago and quickly fell in love with the region’s dynamic wine community. The founder and publisher of NewYorkCorkReport.com, he lives in Miller Place with his wife and two children.