Ageability: myths and mysteries

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.

tondonia1994There 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?

WFW45There 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.

6 thoughts on “Ageability: myths and mysteries

  1. Having recently tasted the 87 & 91 tondonia blanco and the 64 as well, I echo your appreciation for these lovely wines. Fast forward to the Swartland Revolution this weekend and the presentation of the vergenoegd 72 cab which was fresh as a daisy and I suddenly have more questions than answers. However, we will never get to find answers to those questions if we don’t keep back bottles in the cellar – as Callie Louw so eloquently stated it on Saturday.

  2. Tim, regarding geology and wine, James Wilson, a geophysicist and wine-lover, wrote a book “Terroir. The role of geology climate and culture in the making of French wine” (1998) This is a brilliant read. He is able to show how in Burgundy the Grand Cru vineyards are closely correlated with underlying rock strata, and especially the fossiliferous and crumbly Jurassic limestones and marls. He shows similar strong geologic controls in Alsace, Champagne and Loire.

  3. Wilson’s book is indeed worth having if you have any interest in soils science or geology. Unfortunately the connection drawn between GC vineyards and the soil strata is “deductive” rather than scientific. Ie: the vineyards are great, they are located at X, X has Y soils thus Y soils equals greatness in site. And it is a pity that the reasoning stops there, because the only conclusion they (geologist/ soil scientist) plausibly can come up with is the water retention / release capacity of these soils that make them so special. It doesnt answer the question why Chablis taste of wet pebbles and Mosel of slate… Because the proof is pretty conclusive that plants do not abosorb soil or minerals per se, and if they did it would make no difference as minerals have absolutely no tastes. Terroir is here with us like unloveable family, no way to exactly explain it or get rid of it without looking like an *ss…… Keep drinking and thinking I say.
    Still wondering how to make that white wine that will age for a decade pre bottling….

  4. “There is no proof that plants absorb minerals”. I have always wondered about this statement. Farmers add nitrate, phosphate and potassium to soil to add vigour. As these are minerals either they are absorbed, or the farmer is wasting money?

    Maybe if the only correlation is soil texture derived from specific geologies, then geology still is the dominant factor and controls?

  5. John, you are 100% correct, listed is indeed minerals and if added in the inorganic form can be actively (not through osmosis) by root hair. My reference to minerals was a bit loose, as I was trying to refer to the mother material as we see it, quartz, granite, schist etc. each of these minerals obviously affect the metabolism and well being of the plant- the truly bizarre part is, if you measure the exact mineral composition of lets say Corton Charlemagne vineyards you can re-create the mix in a lab, yet the “soil” we create will not nearly have the effect of the natural soils….

  6. The Maltman article in WFW makes it clear that one must distinguish between geological minerals and nutrient minerals. The latter must be dissolved in soil water before they can be absorbed by the vine roots. Potassium is the nutrient mineral required in largest quantities by vines. Let me quote half a paragraph from his article:
    “…vines have evolved highly sophisticated mechanisms of selecting and balancing the amount of nutrients they take up, in order that their needs are met but not exceeded. To this extent vine nutrition isn’t dependent on the nature of the vineyard geology, provided it can yield sufficient nutrients. And because of the modest nutritional needs of grapevines, in general most soils can yield sufficient nutrients, unless they are being overcultivated.”

    And another relevant bit:
    ” “Whether a mineral nutrient originated in a particular rock or this or that geological mineral is irrelevant to the growth processes. … whether the element was originally in a chunk of dolomite or a flake of mica (or for that matter a fertilizer bag) is immaterial. To the vine, magnesium is magnesium.”

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