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The Great Wine Lies: Peaking

September 20, 2009
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“I have this great bottle of wine, and I don’t know if it’s ready.  I think I’ll just hold onto it for a couple of years, because I read that good Cabernet Sauvignons really peak after about 10 years.  So that’s what I plan to do, and then we’ll open it for some very special occasion.”

Sigh.

This is how a lot of people feel about wine, and I can’t blame them.  A lot of wine geeks have bullied them into feeling this way.  And there are not a lot of voices on the other side of the fence.

Maybe we should start with what is true.

TRUTHS

1)    World-class wines, those typically costing over $100 per bottle, are so expensive in part because they are among the rare wines that are made to age well over a long period of time.  And once they have some significant age on them, I am told they are magnificent, and unlike anything most of us consider to be good wine.

2)    Some wines that are not world-class wine are brought to market very young, and can benefit from additional time in the bottle.  This extra time of six months to two years may make the wine more enjoyable to some.

3)    The majority of wines produced today, including fine wines, are made to drink young.

THE BIG LIE is suggesting that wine should be laid down until it reaches its peak.

First and foremost is the problem with the very notion of peaking.  It implies that there is one moment in time when the wine is at its best.  And the fear that has been drilled into people is, “What a shame that you opened that lovely bottle of wine, and never got to taste how lovely it could have been.”

The only way to truly know how a wine develops is to buy a case of it, or multiple cases, and drink the wine with some regularity.  Perhaps a bottle a year.  Maybe a bottle every six months.

Then you can taste the variations of time on that individual bottling you selected.  For argument’s sake, let’s say the wine gets better and better every time you try it.  At some point you may be tempted to suggest it is at its best, and that it cannot get any better.  But perhaps on the next go around, the wine tastes better still.

It is only when the taste of the wine starts to slip that you can definitively say that it has peaked.  But by then, it’s too late.  The peak has passed.

This is the nature of the beast.

Even if you were to keep abreast of vintage charts to try and gauge the perfect moment to drink a certain special bottle of wine, the guidelines may not apply to YOUR bottle of wine.  The primary factor that affects the aging speed of wine is the conditions under which it is kept.  A consistently cool and dark environment is preferred for lengthy aging of fine wines.

But let’s say you kept your bottle in ideal conditions.  This still does not mean the charts apply to your bottle.  The truck it was carried on may not have been climate controlled, which could make a huge difference if the wine was trucked out of California in the summer.  The retailer may have had the bottle standing up under bright lights for over a year.  If the cork dried out or otherwise flawed, more air could have gotten into the bottle and sped up the aging process.

The only way to know what a bottle of wine tastes like is by opening it and pouring yourself a glass.

Now let’s say you actually have held onto a bottle for a long time.  And now you have a significant time commitment sunk into the project of drinking a perfect wine.  Your plan was to open the bottle on a special occasion.  The problem now is that no occasion ever seems special enough.

So the bottle waits.  And waits.  And 10 years turns into 12 years, or maybe much much longer.  The new question is, “Will this wine be any good at all?”

This is why we now have Open That Bottle Night.  Mark your calendars.  And maybe, in the future, you will do a better job about getting yourself into this predicament in the first place.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    September 20, 2009 1:21 pm

    Love this. I’m so in the ‘Wine for Dummies’ phase, so I will appreciate anything you post on this topic. I pretty much know the flavors I like, but not how to describe/ask for them and how to know what to order out/purchase, or, sometimes what to pair with what. For example, I wouldn’t know that a pesto would overpower certain wines (while purchasing it), but at home, I’d know it just tasted wrong. Like I love the Torrentes grape, but how would I know another type that tastes similarly?

    I think a lot of people are like this, but don’t want to own up to. So I’ll just put myself out there. :-)

    • September 3, 2011 12:31 am

      “…not how to describe/ask for them and how to know what to order out/purchase, or, sometimes what to pair with what.”

      Unless you go to a really, really high-end restaurant, the server doesn’t either. They’re just faking it for a better tip.

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