Some thirty years ago, while walking together around the old riverside streets of Strasbourg, Robert Mondavi told me he hoped to make a red wine ready for drinking when bottled but which would also age 30 or more years. Unfortunately, I have never had a chance to experience any of the great man’s wines at age 30, but I am seeing reports of some concerns about how red wines have been aging in recent years.
There is a plague of premature oxidation. Oxidation happens to all wines eventually, but today’s concerns result from the number of wines oxidating after only a few years when they have been expected to last much longer. This issue does not seem to be more prevalent in any one region but there does appear to be an emerging pattern among wines undergoing such transformation.
The causes are believed to date back to the 1990s with the trend to produce fruitier wines with higher alcoholic levels. These wines tended to be more pleasing on the palate and to generate high scores with those who ascribe points to wines. These wines were vinified from very ripe grapes with concentrated flavors, lower tannins, and much lower acidity. In the extraction process, many producers were using excessive oxygen to assure the wine remained fruitier and “more approachable” early on.
Last week I experienced two Napa Valley Cabernets — Ad Vivum 2009 and Carter Cellars 2008. Both were virtually tannin-free and if I had seen them and tasted them blind, I would have guessed their age to be 15 years or more. Deep color, intense on the palate, dried fruit on the nose, and a drying finish. They had not oxidized in any way, were drinking beautifully, but they did bring to mind the reports I have been seeing about premature aging.
From Italy through Burgundy and Champagne, I have been told that climate change is ripening grapes as much as a month earlier than usual. In California, this year’s harvests have been exceptionally early. The riper the grapes, the higher the sugars and alcohol content, the less acidity. Acidity is one of nature’s protectors of the finished product. Without it, wines “tire” more easily.
No one is saying this is a widespread problem but it’s happening often enough to cause concern. During our Strasbourg stroll, Bob Mondavi explained how acidity helps the preservation of the finished wine and the fruit provides the flavor. His goal then was the right balance.
All of us who enjoy and use wine know that most of us keep our wines too long, allowing them to tire before we use them. It appears that we may be on the verge of shortening the keeping time still more.
After this year’s Napa Valley 6.0 earthquake sent shock waves through the wine world, it would seem that news of a major drought in the same area would be adding insult to injury. Not so, fortunately, since dry vineyard conditions are optimal for the best flavor.
Dry conditions create smaller grapes with more intense flavor. Too much rain leads to mold–which can spell disaster. Abundant sunshine helps grapes ripen earlier, and an earlier harvest reduces the possibility of damage from autumn storms.
Experts are predicting that this year’s Napa and Sonoma Valley grape harvests may well lead to the best wines produced in years. “This year’s vintage could be one for the ages,” according to a Pinot Noir specialist quoted in an article by blogger Matt Cantor. “Some drought-era results are already in: Cabernet Sauvignons from 2012 and 2013 managed a score of 96 in a consumer guide, whereas 2011′s versions scored just 78–and that was a rainy year. Last year’s sales also hit a record $23.1 billion.”
Let’s hope for the perfect conditions for the Napa and Sonoma growers–they deserve some luck after the ravages of the earthquake!
It isn’t true that the U.S. Treasury Department this week established eleven new viticultural areas within the Paso Robles AVA because of my impending visit later this month. The Department’s ruling follows six years of intense work by Paso Robles vintners and grape growers to create a comprehensive master plan for the region.
AVA (American Viticultural Area) resembles the appellation designations in France and Italy. AVA designations provide specific information about the type and characteristics of wine from the area.
Just as in France where, for example, Bordeaux wine is classed as Medoc, St-Julien, St-Emilion, etc., wines from Paso Robles may now label themselves as Adelaida District, San Miguel District, Templeton Gap District, and so on — just as Indiana AVAs place the Uplands District along with the Ohio Valley AVA.
Paso Robles has long been known for the diversity of wines in its region, to include diversity of rainfall, soils, and micro-climates. As in France, however, an AVA or appellation designation is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. It only tells the story of the origin of the wine and the regulations governing its growth and production, but location is a substantial indicator of the quality of the grapes and the vines.
I look forward very much to learning more about what these new designations mean to individual producers when I reach Paso Robles.
« NEWER POSTS | OLDER POSTS »