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How to make wine for the ages

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What allows a wine to last 10, 20 or 50 years? And why is there sometimes a perception that the New World’s wines can’t do this? Gavin Smith talks to Tor Kenward, Christian Moueix, Colgin’s Paul Roberts MS and more about the keys to making fine wine for the cellar – and if it’s relevant today

What defines a fine wine? For many, it is a bottle’s ability to improve with age. A wine’s longevity is even seen, by some, as the ultimate measure of its quality. It’s true that aged wine can be some of the most memorable – capturing an essence of time that’s impossible to recreate. The ageing process can be central to a wine’s (or, for that matter, whisky’s) progression to another, unparalleled level of complexity.

Yet how a wine ages remains something of a mystery to both winemakers and collectors. There is still a great deal of conjecture about how a wine will develop, why it does so, and whether it is even worth the wait. Unlike whisky, wine is much less stable on its journey into maturity. As Christian Moueix puts it, “Wine is a complex matrix of thousands of compounds suspended in a delicate equilibrium.” This equilibrium is fragile, age a potential threat and a wine’s trajectory therefore incredibly difficult to predict.

There was a time when wine drinkers dismissed the New World. Today, fortunately, that’s not the case – and it’s rightfully acknowledged for producing fine wine. However, some snobbery remains. Drinkers tend – beyond a handful of the very top names – to drink New World wines much younger than their Old World counterparts. Ask any oenophile about the oldest bottle they’ve drunk, and we’d put money on it being from Europe – Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Mosel, Alsace or Douro.

Of course, one element is undoubtedly availability. The traditions of drinking Bordeaux (even from modest châteaux), for example, at full maturity – 20 or 30 years down the line – is not uncommon, and these wines continue to be regularly traded among collectors. New World wines at full maturity are much more of a rarity. Many of the younger regions in the New World still haven’t had the chance to build up such an extensive back catalogue, yet the wines have everything they need to comfortably age as long as their counterparts.

Burgundy maestro Jean-Marie Fourrier, who now also manages Mornington Peninsula winery Bass Phillip in Australia, is an advocate for New World wines’ ageability, with Bass Phillip’s Pinot Noirs a case in point. But he believes the reputation for a shorter drinking window is partly due to practical, economic necessity.

“When you start making wine at a young winery, you need a quick turn over, a quick return on investment,” he says. Therefore, producers craft wines that can be drunk younger. It is only once a winery, or a region, is established that winemakers can afford to have a longer-term approach and deliberately make wines to age or hold back stock. In this respect, the established classical regions of Europe have hundreds of years of history to fall back on.

Napa has long since proved its mettle producing wines that can age. But just what it is that allows a wine to improve with age has been a hot topic of conversation in the region for decades. Tor Kenward – of Tor Wines – recollects a conversation between himself, Robert Mondavi and another legendary Napa winemaker, André Tchelistcheff over 40 years ago. Sitting around a table, they were trying to determine the key factor that makes great wine age. Was it the winemaking? The quality or concentration of the grapes? Or was it all about harvesting at the right time?

Tchelistcheff – who trained in Europe and, by this time, had been making wine in Napa for over four decades – contemplated the suggestions. High acid levels (low pH), high concentration of tannins and oxygen management were all tabled and, while he accepted all were important, for him, a great wine for ageing needed “flesh”. By this, recalls Kenward, he meant the grapes needed a certain type of ripeness – not over, not under, but perfect physiological ripeness. Forty years on and Kenward still believes Tchelistcheff was right, yet it is an aspect often forgotten in the discussion of a wine’s ability to age.

Finding this perfect window of physiological ripeness can be a challenge in warmer regions, and a warming climate, and therefore remains an obstacle for much of the New World. These regions tend to be warmer than historically marginal wine-growing regions of Europe, and therefore grapes can ripen quickly, but with this fast ripening comes a risk of reaching sugar ripeness before the skins have had the necessary time to reach maturity.

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The Dominus vineyards in cooler Southern Napa

Christian Moueix is one of the world’s most experienced winemakers, having managed both PétrusTrotanoy and other top Pomerol estates, as well as Napa’s Dominus. He agrees with Tchelistcheff that picking the grapes at optimum ripeness is a hugely important factor when producing wines that can age. “If harvested too early, grapes have a smaller quantity of extractible phenolic compounds and […] may not have formed the longer chains and bonds that make them stable.” On the other hand, when overripe, “These phenolic compounds are degraded through oxidation.”

For Moueix, the temperate climates in Europe are ideal for “developing and maintaining a high ratio of phenolic compounds”, whereas in many New World regions, there is a propensity for excessive heat, over-ripeness and therefore oxidative winemaking which he feels is, “likely to contribute to wines that age prematurely”. In warmer climates, Moueix believes, “extreme heat, enzymatic and physiochemical reactions degrade anthocyanins within the berry, lowering the concentration of total phenolic compounds and subsequently, the wine’s capacity to resist oxidation, leading to premature aging”. For Moueix, then, a temperate climate (whether in the New or Old World) is key to producing wines that can age.

It is, he believes, the reason why Dominus ages so well. This corner of the southern Napa Valley is relatively mild, thanks to the San Pablo Bay’s cooling influence. This slows sugar accumulation and gives the berries time for the tannins to ripen. They also don’t use irrigation, putting the vines under more stress, producing small berries with high phenolic concentration.

Like Moueix and Tchelistcheff, Fourrier believes picking dates and high concentration of tannins is important – but he ties this to vine age, rather than the microclimate. “As vines get older, the size of the berries gets smaller,” explains Fourrier. It is this that gives a high skin-to-juice ratio and natural concentration. For Fourrier, this natural concentration is what gives ageing potential – rather than any actions in the winery.

All are in agreement that the ageing ability of red wines comes down to the quality of the berries, rich in anthocyanins (ideally then from older vines) and picked at the right time in order to extract them at their optimal level of ripeness. But these factors affect Old World producers as much as those in the New World.

Paul Roberts – Master Sommelier and COO of Colgin in Napa – makes a compelling point that New World regions in the right climate regularly produce higher concentrations of tannins than the Old World’s cooler climates. In fact, they have to pay close attention to extract less tannin during the winemaking, not more, to maintain the balance in the wine for it to age. Colgin’s mountainside IX Estate vineyard on Pritchard Hill produces berries that are, on average, 30% smaller than those grown in Pauillac. Often, Roberts notes, Napa Cabernets have higher skin-to-juice ratios than the Bordeaux First Growths – and therefore much more “anti-oxidant” tannins than their Bordeaux counterparts. According to Moueix’s belief that it is the concentration of tannins and phenolics found in the skins that protects wine from oxidation and degradation, this should mean that top Napa wines have the potential to outlive Bordeaux wines at the top level.

Andy Smith, winemaker at the Russian River’s DuMOL estate, makes some of the region’s top Pinot Noir and, like Colgin, has no shortage of tannins in his grapes. Compared to Burgundy, his Pinot Noir has smaller berries, “with uncommonly thick skins that create huge natural power if you choose to extract fully”. For Smith, “this leads to a potential for powerful, deep wines with high structure for aging, and high natural acidity”. Like Colgin, it is an overabundance of tannins that is more of a concern at DuMOL. “The key is balancing the extraction,” says Smith, “to take the positive and leave behind the excessive elements from the skins.”

For leading Chilean winemaker Francisco Baettig (Errazuriz, Seña and Chadwick) it is an excess of tannin, and an excess of extraction in some more ambitious wines, in the New World that has tainted its reputation for producing wines with long ageing ability. “There was an obsession for creating monster wines, with lots of extraction, trying to extract as much tannin as possible,” Baettig notes, looking back 10-15 years. Many producers in Bordeaux were doing the same at the time, but the different climates – the same elements highlighted by Roberts and Moueix for leading to higher concentrations of tannin – influence the tannin and extraction. “In Chile with higher intensity and higher levels of ripeness, the extraction happens much quicker,” he explains. This resulted in over-extraction – “wines that were rough, too tannic and did not age well”.

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DuMOL's Russian River vineyards in California

For New World producers, better tannin management is clearly key to producing wines that can age. Producers like Tor, Colgin, DuMOL and Baettig all believe gentle extraction of tannin and reducing the wines’ contact with oxygen is fundamental for aging. In cooler, less sunny European climates, it could be argued that in the past, due to the less easily extracted tannins, producers could get a way with being a lot less precise in their tannin management. With this in mind, Baettig notes the Old World might need to learn from the New World, how best to adapt their winemaking to the effects of climate change – and, in many ways, they already are. Vignerons are already looking back at sunny vintages such as 2005 and 2010 (with high levels of extractable tannins) and questioned some producers’ apparent over-extraction of tannins, adapting accordingly in years like 2019 and ’20.

The transformation of grapes into wine is magical; the secondary transformation that can take place with maturity is possibly even more extraordinary. However, a wine with so much promise can disappoint if left too long – a frail, bitter example of its former self. It is no surprise that many drinkers choose to avoid such risks and savour wines in their more muscular youth.

There is a cultural change too. DuMOL’s Smith notes that the average US consumer is not particularly interested in ageing their Pinot Noir and questions whether ageing wine is an outdated notion. In a society that favours immediate gratification, modern consumers are impatient and few have cellars in their homes. And the savoury flavours that come with maturity aren’t to everyone’s tastes. “There’s a big difference between positive evolution, plateau-ing and the gradual downward slope of oxidation,” he says. “All wine ultimately wants to become vinegar!”

Because of this, some winemakers are deliberately pulling back from making wines that peak at 20 years, instead looking to produce wines that will appeal in youth and peak closer to 10 years, since that’s what their customers want. Even the most tannic red wines from the more traditional regions are these days much more approachable in their youth, something that just wasn’t possible just a few years ago (as noted by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW).

Making fine wine is an art – and especially so when it comes to building a wine for the future. Choosing the perfect moment to pick in the given climate, as well as the right style and level of extraction in the winery will determine a wine’s ageability – but only if the underlying quality of fruit is sufficiently high. With better winemaking equipment, we no longer need to wait for tannins to soften to enjoy even the best Bordeaux or Napa. Does that mean you can’t age it for a half-century? Or that it won’t improve over that period? Absolutely not. Fine wine – from both the Old World and the New – arguably has a longer drinking window than ever before – giving us ever more chances to savour it.

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