Writer and broadcaster Andrew Jefford examines what it is about the best wines that allows them to age gracefully and how, increasingly, these are being produced outside the boundaries of the classic regions.
Sooner or later, time destroys almost all of the objects with which we comfort our mortality. In the longest perspective, wine is no exception; not even Vintage Madeira lasts forever, though when you sip a great nineteenth-century Sercial or Malmsey, it's not hard to believe that it might.
Simple wines, of course, must keep an eye on the clock: their flesh and fruit lasts for months, not years, and comeliness soon gives way to fatigue. They're mayflies: beautiful in their hour, then best buried in the leaf litter of the stomach.
Between the two extremes, by contrast, lies a fecund hinterland of wines with what we might call a mammalian relationship to time. Few are truly ready to fend for themselves at birth; they need the passage of time to achieve adulthood, autonomy, articulacy and fecundity; old age comes the other side of a decade, and sometimes several.
How long will they last, though, and in what ways? These are complex questions. It's sad if you discover that the last three bottles of a case eclipse the first nine; it's worse, perhaps, to realise that you've left the whole case too long, and the sublimely contoured bottle that made you buy it in the first place has given way to a set of shrivelled relics.
It's no accident that Bordeaux is the paradigmatic collector's wine: it ages with more predictability than other red wines, and few would disagree that its apogee comes with time. Vintage Port is the same. Burgundy, too? Perhaps, though it's a brave drinker who ages white Burgundy for long nowadays, and some red Burgundy vintages (2004, 2007) are more mayfly than mammalian. I personally feel that much Northern Rhône red (though not white) is subjected to too much age by collectors. Châteauneuf's wide drinking window is legendary – but if it tastes gorgeous to begin with, I wouldn't wait long. Most fine German riesling, by contrast, does indeed reward a decade's forgetfulness, as do densely constituted sweet wines in general (especially from the Loire).
Beyond these long-standing cellar worthies, though, dozens more beckon. Today's wine world, with its vastly expanded terroir potential and its accelerated winemaking efforts, has shovelled on the possibilities. None of this, needless to say, has escaped the consuming canniness of The Society's own buyers, which is why they intend to offer cases of matured wines drawn from well-outside the classical boundaries in future. (Subscribers to the Vintage Cellar Plan, of course, already have the option on ageing off-piste wines if they wish.)
I know from my own experience just how well many wines from the South of France can age. Cahors, Madiran and Bandol have long struck me as the greatest French red wines outside Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône, and a part of the reason is precisely the ability of the best to age and reward the investment in time with subtly modulated aromatic profiles, growing palate harmony and enhanced flavour articulacy with time. Any top wine from a good vintage from these regions should relish a decade's hibernation. Languedoc-Roussillon is less certain a prospect (ripeness can romp away quickly there), but the most classically contoured examples still have flesh on their bones a decade down the road. (My 1998 Mas Jullien is still on great form.)
Spain's Rioja has long provided unrivalled opportunities for the casual drinker to enjoy aged wine: the producers have traditionally done the ageing for us. Most of them still do, and great mature Rioja from high up in the Ebro Valley matches, for me, almost anything that Bordeaux can manage, though the fact that ageing is accomplished in barrel rather than bottle lends it a different style of articulation. Muga, La Rioja Alta, CVNE: it's a litany of comfort. My erratic experiments down the years suggest that Portugal is another source of surprisingly ageworthy red wines, marked by maritime equilibrium and, from Dão and the Douro, mineral force, too.
In their own way, Italy's grandees offer a little of what Rioja does: the lengthy minimum ageing regulations for Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello mean that it is rare to find a closed or forbidding wine on release. Anyone lucky enough to have had the chance to try those same wines with an extra decade's bottle age, though, will know that an amplification of resonance and harmony awaits. The best Chianti, too, can drift into a kind of classical reverie that keeps it humming quietly for years (though anything but the best will simply be too light for that). From the South, Aglianico del Vulture and Taurasi (which is made from aglianico) age well.
Immense efforts go into producing fine-red wines imbued with a sense of place in California and the southern hemisphere's wine-producing countries, though it is too soon yet to say that there are entire regions (like Bordeaux or Rioja in Europe) which guarantee an intriguing ageing profile. (If pressed for a name, I'd probably go white: riesling from the Clare and Eden valleys in Australia.)
The closest thing to a safe ageing bet in red wines comes from long-established producers whose greatest bottles regularly emerge from private cellars a decade later to scrutiny and acclaim. Penfolds' finest reds, for example; the Margaret River Cabernets of Moss Wood or Cullen; almost anything vinified or blended by Paul Draper at Ridge from his wonderfully eclectic collection of vineyards; carefully picked reds from some of oldest-established estates in Stellenbosch.
And then there's the shock of the new. I'm thinking, in particular, of the depthcharging red malbecs and blends of Argentina's Mendoza, because they have a textural generosity hard to find elsewhere in the southern hemisphere. We shouldn't forget, either, the terroirfaithful wines of younger producers like Eben Sadie in South Africa (he also works in Spain's Priorat), as well as the remarkable new-generation pinots of Australia (with their sinew and rigour) and New Zealand (with their poise and flesh). Ageing all of these wines is necessarily experimental at present; we simply don't know what the decades will make of them. I'd be very surprised, though, if it wasn't something interesting – as The Society's plan to secure such wines on release to mature on members' behalf will reveal. Given time.
Andrew Jefford has a regular blog and column in Decanter magazine and is contributing editor for The World of Fine Wine magazine. He was named 'International Wine Columnist of the Year' at the Louis Roederer Awards 2010.
For more information on The Society's Vintage Cellar Plan please visit thewinesociety.com/vintagecellarplan or contact Member Services on 01438 741177.
'The Wine Society has a tradition of laying down keeping stocks from those areas that we already offer en primeur for the benefit of members. This is partly because these wines will often become scarce or expensive to buy later on and because there will always be a demand for mature fine wines from classic regions. It has become increasingly apparent that we should cast our net wider and increase our keeping stocks to include wines from other areas too.
'In Rioja for example, many bodegas are releasing their Reserva wines earlier and it is increasingly difficult to source wines with the smooth, silky complex flavours of maturity which we know our members appreciate. Australia's fine wines are relatively moderate in price but once again it is not easy to find wines with maturity as producers can no longer afford to hold onto commercial quantities of stock. The South of France and Italy have wonderful wines which repay keeping and older vintages of these wines too are hard to come by.
'The Society, with its expanded storage capacity and sound financial position, is well-placed to take advantage of developments in the wider wine world to secure wines to mature on members' behalf for future enjoyment. Accordingly, a budget has been set aside and members can look forward to seeing more mature wines from non-classic regions in the years to come.'
Buyer for Spain, New Zealand,Australia and Lebanon