I’m pondering ageing. Not my own – I try to think as little of that as possible – but of wine. It started on Sunday on a marvellous Rioja tasting, organised by Rosa Kruger for our monthly tasting group. Amongst others, Rosa offered three pretty old wines from the magnificent Tondonia estate of the great traditional house López de Heredia. All were Gran Reservas: the Blanco 1994, and Tintos from 1981 and 1984.
There was some discussion, of course, as to which of these was the “best”, but all were splendid to all of us (though, of course, not everyone is going to like the austerity or oxidative element on, especially, the white). But all were also fresh and full of life and somehow promising to continue being so for … how long? A long time, surely. I remember in the 1990s drinking any number of much less grand Riojas from the 1970s from the cellar that Billy Hofmeyr had built up at Welgemeend. All of those modest, pretty cheap wines seemed to be cruising, with no sell-by date anywhere on the horizon.
So traditionally-made, decent quality Rioja clearly has something going for it in the ageing stakes. Pity there’s so much less of around these days, given the turn to “Parkerised” wines there – with new oak, much more ripeness, less time in barrel and bottle, less oxidative processes, before being thrust on the market. Lengthy barrel-ageing (up to a decade, even, in mostly older American oak) perhaps give some explanation for wines like the Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas – if they survived that, what else can happen to them?
Local winemaker Francois Haasbroek started the questioning by wondering if it would be possible locally to produce some sort of equivalent wine. Could one make a wine that not only survived, but thrived, in barrel for eight years? And then went on to live for another half-century or longer. (The oldest Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas that I’ve been privileged to drink about 5 years ago – were the Blanco and Tinto from the particularly great 1964 vintage, but I know that many older vintages are still showing excellently.)
But what is it that explains the ageability of some wines? In the face of much fairly complacent assurance about the topic from a lot of people (it’s acidity … tannins … sugar … retained carbon dioxide … sulphur additives … balance) it seems to be yet another aspect of wine that we actually know really little about. Remember how the cork-screwcap debate revealed how little was known about the chemistry of satisfactory wine ageing in bottle – did it depend on oxygen ingress or not?
There are a couple of pieces in the latest issue of World of Fine Wine dwelling on different aspects of the ageing debate. Tom Stevenson examines the conviction derived from a long and deep experience in champagne that sparkling wine with a slightly higher dosage ages more satisfactorily than the zero- or low-dosage versions – though it seems that scientific answers for this are not easy to find (but he has an excellent longish-term experiment on the go, with some grand bubblies in magnums from 2002 and 2004, bottled with different dosages, amounts of sulphur, etc).
Elsewhere in the magazine, American critic David Schildknecht continues his thoughts about the “myths of ageability “, which began thus: “Commonplace claims about wine are routinesly laced with mystification and self-deception – nowhere more, it seems, than when expounding on ageworthiness.”
Things seem even more problematical when talking about white wines than red, but even with the latter there’s no real concensus. Schildknecht finds important counter-examples with regard to all of the elements he discusses – even Matt Kramer’s suggestion of “’mid-palate density’ as an organoleptically discernible criterion for wines that will age well”. But Schildknecht argues on.
Even track record is not a scientific enough criterion for certainty (he adduces changes in vineyards and production methods – he doesn’t mention ultra-conservative Viña Tondonia, though!), and has a trump card with the recent experiences of premature oxidation in white Burgundy.
I can’t properly summarise it all, but it’s fascinating reading. I am usually reluctant to prognosticate about the developmental possibilities of a vintage or a wine than some of my colleagues, but I will be even more so in future, the wooliness and inadequacy of my own thinking on the topic having been so incisively revealed.
Incidentally, World of Fine Wine Issue 45 has an equally fascinating article by an eminent geologist giving some basics about soils and minerals, and showing how difficult (impossible?) it is to relate these simply to the wine from the grapes off the vines grown in them.
There’s a long way to go before the mysteries of wine can all be explained. Perhaps a not altogether bad thing.