”Modern culture—American culture—glorifies the young; on the lost continent of old Europe it was the affair of the young man and his older mistress that had the glamour of perfection.” Stephen Vizinczey.
Being young is beautiful, cool, invincible, immortal and fabulously exciting. Young red wines range from bright scarlet to deep purple in colour with little or no variation between the rim and core. Colour is derived from the grape skin, not the pulp, grape variety is a decisive factor, as are winemaking practices and PH. It is possible to over extract colour and flavour, but the resultant wine tends to be coarse and undrinkable – showing a marked reluctance to age gracefully. Older reds show a progressive shift from purple to brown and dark to light, their tannins and anthocyanins polymerise to form larger particles which fall out of the wine forming a sediment or deposit. A mature wine is lighter in colour with a distinctly tawny or brick red rim.
Appearance is not the only significant factor in the ageing process (note that I am avoiding a comparison with people here), there are also changes in aroma, taste, structure and body due to oxidation and esterification. There are many reasons why older is not necessarily wiser. Older wines are not easy to appreciate, lacking the zip, pizzazz and vigour of young wines they can seem, in essence, a bit weird. Difficult to understand, complex and reticent, their primary fruit aromas have been replaced by more reductive odours – redolent of the farmyard – brought about by chemical changes, tannins soften, fruit departs, acidity is the one true constant.
So why drink old wines? Don’t waste your money if you are not prepared for them. The ability of a taster to assess a wine as it ages, involves a big back catalogue of variable scenarios together with a damn good eye for detail. It also requires patience and a tendency to dislike instant gratification.
When I started drinking, alcopops and frozen or gelatinised ethanol did not exist. There was beer, cider, wine and whisky and they all took a bit of getting used to. You had to man up, pucker up and read up. You went to meet the product – it didn’t come to meet you! We are spoiled nowadays with clean, user friendly drinks that demand little of us, which is why we struggle to appreciate certain wines leaving them neglected and misunderstood. It is not only a fear of the old, but a fear of the unknown and consequently un-tasted.
The Côte Rôtie was from the excellent 1983 vintage. Fill level was good, cork sound with no seepage, although I was unfamiliar with the producer. Decanting avoided to preserve bouquet, it was poured carefully into the glass. Garnet in colour with a nose of mushrooms and delicate forest fruits, the wine was ethereal in structure, the robustness and fire of the Syrah’s youth well behind it. The delicacy and slight perfume may have come from the permitted addition of Viognier, although the actual cepage remained a mystery. It’s tannins had softened to a whisper, and the slightly nervous acidity was all that remained on the finish. Charming, a little fragile and past its best, but it did manage to tell a tale or two.