You probably know, or think you know, that fine wine gets better with age. But how do you know that? It is probably not by tasting a large number of fine wines of various vintages.
Instead, you’re just taking it on trust, often from the kind of wine snobs who will sniff and swirl and spit a wine, but now swallow it, and declare with all the puffed-up authority they can muster that it will be “drinking well from 2017 through 2027.”
Such proclamations tend to be extremely unhelpful except for people who aspire to become wine snobs. Even if wine really does get better with age, you can only benefit from being told such things if you can a) find the wine now; b) afford to buy it without drinking it; c) store it indefinitely in carefully temperature-controlled conditions; and d) somehow be able to cross-reference your wine collection with a database which tells you when the perfect drinking years finally roll around so the wine isn’t forgotten.
Fine old wine is drunk every day, by people who are very happy that it has been aging for a decade or two. But for every bottle that fits that description, there’s another bottle which has been gathering dust for far too long.
If it’s drinkable at all, it’s flat, uninspired, and likely to taste of nothing in particular, especially after 10 minutes in contact with air. There are millions of these bottles, all of which should really have been drunk years ago, and many of which are being treasured by owners who have delayed gratification for so long that it has disappeared entirely.
Meanwhile, the world of vintage wine is becoming more out of reach for the middle-class, with fine Burgundy and Bordeaux now an international commodity beloved of wine investment funds. No longer can such wines be bought for relatively modest prices when young, with the expectation that they would appreciate just as modestly over time.
Once upon a time, colleges, clubs and restaurants would barely change over decades, and would happily replenish the old wine they were drinking now with new wine they intended to drink in many years’ time. Something similar would take place within families: wine-loving patriarchs would drink the bottles bought by their fathers and grandfathers, while building up their own collection for their sons and grandsons.
But we’re living in an increasingly high-velocity world, where clubs and restaurants and hotels come and go quickly. They haven’t had the opportunity to build up a spectacular cellar and probably never will.
But the financial realities are even more important. Few of us have the good fortune to be able to drink bottles bought in the 60s, 70s, or 80s by our fathers or grandfathers — but even when we do, we feel that we need to do so in a special, ceremonious way, if only because those bottles, if they’re any good at all, are now so valuable.
Only a fraction of all wine produced globally will age well over 20 years or more. That tiny fraction of the world’s global wine production has appreciated enormously in price, even when it’s brand new. To drink vintage wine on a regular basis, you have to be able to afford to replace it with the same wine from the most recent vintage. That was something middle-class wine lovers could do, back in the 70s and 80s; it’s almost impossible now.
At the same time, the quality of wine which won’t age well has improved immeasurably over the past 30 years. A technological wine-making revolution which began in Australia has long since swept the entire world, to the point at which even the cheapest wines are dramatically better than their counterparts of a few decades ago.
Back in the 1970s, the choice between cheap California jug wine and good French Bordeaux was an easy one. The French wine was significantly better and still affordable while the cheap wine tended to be far too sweet, perfectly capable of ruining an otherwise-excellent meal.
Today, entry-level mass-produced wines like Yellowtail or Ecco Domani are eminently drinkable and for the same price or just a couple of dollars more it’s possible to find excellent wines from France, Spain, Chile and many other countries. That first-growth Bordeaux, by contrast, is utterly out of reach: only millionaires can afford to drink it daily.
It used to make a lot of sense for many people to drink half the wine they bought and lay down the rest. But almost none of the wine that most of us buy and drink is going to get any better with age.
The problem is that winemakers and wine retailers are loathe to admit it, because they know that the ability to age well is universally perceived as a sign of quality.
It can be a lot of fun to drink older wine, if you don’t have too much emotionally or financially invested in it. Recently I poured a 1998 Chianti down the drain without regret: I bought it cheap and the gamble didn’t pay off. But it’s very hard to throw away wine with nonchalance when you’ve paid $50 or $150 or even $500 for it.
So if you find a wine that you love, drink it. And if you want to start exploring the world of older wines, make sure you have a fat wallet and expect to run into some very expensive disappointments along the way.