Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Well Aged.

I've heard it said that a finely-aged wine is like Sophia Loren: rare, classic beauty that only improves as time passes (within reason...she's not really doing it for me at this point). The comparison is heightened by the existence of massive, extracted, fruit-monsters that are so popular. They can definitely be bombshells in their youth, but all the airbrushing, makeup, and silicone (that is to say, abuse of mega purple, excessive fining, micro-oxygenation, etc.) usually ends badly. And while I don't intend to poke fun at Anna Nicole Smith's tragic story, there's no denying she went from sex pot to train wreck faster than you can say "Aussie Shiraz".

To be fair to the ladies (since I don't know a single one who appreciates the virtues of a youthful Anna Nicole), think of it this way: I don't suspect we'll ever see milk-drinking stallion Zac Efron peddling aftershave when he's knocking on death's door. I bet Zac Efron needs some fancy cologne to tell him he's a man. But not Jack Palance. RIP, you handsome bastard. Confidence, indeed, was very sexy. Even if my wife gags when I splash on the Skin Bracer. Guess I need to tack on about 40 years and try again.

Enter Ridge Vineyards. A stalwart in the wine world. One of the two names (along with Seghesio) that put dry red Zinfandel wines on the map. As it turns out, they have some vineyards at Lytton Springs in Healdsburg, CA. I happened to be out there and managed to weasel my way into a vertical tasting of several vintages from Lytton Springs, along with a few from Monte Bello (south of the Bay Area). Right place at the right time, I suppose. Or maybe it was the confidence I had from all the Skin Bracer I put on that morning. I'm going with the former.

Courtesy of the dapper Chris Watkins (who totally pull off wearing a sweater and jacket in 105 degree weather), I tucked into the 1987, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007 Lytton Springs bottlings, along with 3 Monte Bellos from the early 90's ('91, '92, '94).

Sipping on these beauties on the Ridge crushpad, surrounded by formerly twitter handles, facebook profiles, and blog editors (now friends who I have connected with in person...who says social media is impersonal?), I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of enjoying some maturity in the glass.

Like child actors, most wines aren't meant to age...their values are all in their youth. If cellared too long, they become awkward and unmarketable. Why is this? The answer lies in preservatives. Natural preservatives- namely, phenolic compounds and acids (and high alcohol in fortified wines, but that's another story altogether...like Mickey Rooney). Phenolic compounds include anthocyanins, tannins, and non-flavonoids like resveratrol (among other stuff) found in the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes, and also in oak. Tannins in particular act as natural preservatives, and give many young red wines (especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nebbiolo, and Tannat) that dry, fuzzy feeling in the mouth. They are also quite astringent, so very tannic wines can taste bitter. However, as a wine ages, the tannins bind to form larger molecules and eventually get too heavy, thus precipitating out of the wine. The anthocyanins also bind and precipitate out. Since they're responsible for the red and blue hues in red wines, this is why aged reds tend to lighten in color over time.

Acidity plays a big role in preserving wines, and is the key reason why many cool climate whites (which- unless heavily aged in oak- are usually devoid of much tannin due to very limited skin contact during fermentation) can be aged. Fine German Riesling, in particular, is known for its searing acidity and its chops for cellaring. Some of the great White Burgundies (made from Chardonnay) and crisp Champagnes have also managed to mature nicely.

However, most consumers these days don't want to sit on bottles for 5-10 years before consuming, nor do they have the proper storage to do so. So many producers have found ways to "artificially mature" wines so they are more approachable in youth. Fruit is picked when riper, offering bigger fruit flavors (but as fruit ripens, its acidity drops). Food additives such as mega purple enhance the color and mouthfeel of wines in lieu of extracting these properties with skin contact, resulting in "desirable" attributes without the side-effect of heavy tannic fuzz and astringency. Chemical processes like micro-oxygenation introduce oxygen into fermented wines, helping polymerize tannins (which gives a "softer" mouthfeel, but hastens the life of the suspended tannic compounds).

I guess what I'm saying is that the bottle of 1997 Yellow Tail Cabernet your folks have been "storing" in the basement isn't going to taste any better than it did the year it was made. In fact, all those processes have crippled the wine's natural preservatives, so it's very likely not been able to fight off the inevitable infitration of oxygen into the bottle through the cork, and you've probably got a bottle of vinegar. And I like my wine vinegar from purposeful Italians, not accidental Australians, thank you very much.

But good age makes you quickly understand why folks pay high prices and exercise tremendous patience. The softer tannic presence creates smooth, velvety wines. The nose reveals totally new flavors that have emerged from continual chemical reactions in the bottle. Even a bit of oxydation can create nutty, caramelly (is that a word?) aromas and tastes. It's a totally unique experience to those who thought they'd really knew wine before (present company included).

I recall really digging the Ridge 1992 and the 1996 Lytton Springs (primarily Zinfandel blends). All the Monte Bellos were awesome (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc). I hope you get a chance to try these. Or, grab a recent vintage and let it sit for a while (away from heat and sunlight). Your patience will be rewarded, like a child star getting an adult gig. Meh, I guess Rick Schroder was pretty forgettable on "24". Bad example.

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