Older is a good thing

By Celia Strong

Finally!  Yes, with all the old age jokes that some of us live with, older can be better. For people, it means we could be smarter and better looking. For wine, it means new, and better in their own way, flavors and textures. Of course, some of us almost never have the time or the inclination to age our wines. And, even if we did at one point in our lives, as we get older it gets less likely that we want to buy wines that we have to age. Who knows if they’ll be ready to drink before we can get to them. And, then some doctor puts us on a prescription that doesn’t work with alcohol. Ugh!  So, even though some aged wines may be better, we are not always able to go down that road.

But, we are now started on a road, talking about aging wines. When you think about it, wine is one of the only consumable products that can get better with age. (Well, some wines.) The ability of any one wine to age is based on a lot of factors — grape variety, vintage, how the wine was made (viniculture) and the style of the wine. And, once the winery has done its part, how the wine is stored. And, yes, storage conditions can be cumbersome and expensive. Plus, there’s the fact that you buy the wines and don’t get to enjoy them until they’re the right age.

The understanding of the potential of wines to age goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In Greece, they had what were called “straw wines” that could age because of their high sugar content. In Rome, two of the most sought after wines were Falernian and Surrentine, because of their ability to age for decades. The Greek physician Galen wrote that the taste of aged wine was desirable and it could be achieved by heating or smoking wines. To his credit, he also said that naturally aged, really older wines, were better than the “man made” aged wines.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, aged wines and any desire for them was almost nonexistent. At that time, most of the wines produced in Europe were light bodied, pale colored and low in alcohol. Aging most of them longer than a couple of months resulted in vinegar. Yum! Over time, Europeans learned to enjoy heavier, fuller bodied and fortified wines, many of which could be aged. Large cellars of aging wines became popular, if you could afford it.  Jancis Robinson, a Master of Wine and widely published wine writer, says that, today, only about 10 percent of red wines and 5 percent of white wines actually taste any better with age. She also says that only about the top 1 percent of all wines made are age worthy. Of course, part of this becomes a personal choice, depending on the style of wine you prefer.

Generally, wines with a low pH, like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, have greater aging capability. Red wines, with high levels of flavor compounds (phenolics that include tannins), are more likely to age successfully. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah have more of these phenols; phenols come from the skins of the grapes. White wines, with high levels of acidity, age better. Since white wines are made without skin contact they have almost no phenols so the acidity levels matter more with these wines. (Barrel fermenting or aging of white wines can give them some phenols from the wood, just not enough to change their aging potential.) The hard part of all this is learning what “they” mean by more phenols and more acidity. No matter what grape a wine is made from, there is just no set rule on how long that grape will age.  One Merlot can age two years, another might go 10 years. One Riesling, again, might last two years, another might age 30 years. And all we’re talking about here is grape variety, vintage, viniculture and style. Going into proper storage conditions for aging wines at home is probably too much to get into right now.

So, just a bit more about what happens to a wine as it ages. The tannins in a red wine, which can be very harsh and coarse feeling in our mouth with a young wine, become smoother and softer feeling. The acidity of a white, although the actual amount of acidity stays the same, also softens, as a texture, as its wine ages. The aromas and flavors of aging wines also develop. They become more complex, more interwoven with each other, and  can also multiply from five or six in a  young wine to dozens in older wines. Yes, aging can be a good thing!

And now, it’s wine time. Cosentino Winery was built in 1990. Actually, Mitch Cosentino started making wine in Modesto, in 1980. But, 10 years later, he moved to Napa because he dreamed of being a great Napa winemaker. He has great skills and knowledge of his grapes and soils where they grow. And a great palate. He is able to make wines that not only taste good when they are released, but that also have good aging potential. (A treat in the Cosentino tasting room is to taste multiple vintages of one wine. A treat and an education.) This week we get to try slightly aged wines, a red and a white.

The Cosentino Poet is a blend of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 percent Cabernet Franc and 8 percent Merlot. It is rich with dark fruit flavors (dark plums, blackberries, bing cherries, pomegranate), cedar, spices and toasty oak. And the tannins? Smooth, integrated into and all around the flavors, so they are part of the wine, not a separate texture just hanging around waiting for something to do. And all this is in the 2006 vintage. And, for a reduced price of $19.97. (Normally this wine is about twice that much.) The Cosentino Novelist is a white blend. Seventy-seven percent Sauvignon Blanc and 23 percent Semillon. Both of these varieties have good acidity levels. Lemon blossoms, honeydew melon and a lovely creaminess mark this wine. Some hints of baking spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg) and lemon zest pop too. The vintage is 2008.  And, again, at a reduced price, $12.97.

So, now we have the opportunity to try some wines, duly aged at the winery. They are both very special, and, maybe, may start some of us on a new course of wine drinking. Just like each of us has the same personality we did when we were children, just more developed and well rounded now that we’re older, these two wines are more than they were. Older can be better — for us and for our wines. Enjoy.

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