“I don’t drink young wines, I only drink older wines, and I always decant them,” is what someone told Eugene Gonsalves when Eugene tried to gift him a bottle of local Mendocino County wine while on a European vacation.
First things first: if someone tries to gift a bottle of wine to you, then turning your nose up, untasted, is boorish at least.
Age is not as important as vintage; 2008 is older than 2012, but few in Mendocino County would choose a local 2008 wine over a wine from 2012. 2008 was the year of fires when ash and smoke sat on top of grapes in the vineyard and yielded horribly flawed wines. 2011 is older than 2012, but 2011 was a very cool year, and some wine magazine writers cried about what a horrible vintage it was for California wine, when really it was Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that took the biggest hit, while 2012 has been heralded as a stellar vintage.
Age does some things to all wines, but age is not always beneficial for all wines.
Red wines are wines that have juice in contact with skins after press, and the skins impart tannins along with color. Tannins give wine firmness, and react with flavors – at first masking them and later joining with them to produce a supple leathery quality.
Red wines are typically sealed with a cork, a semi-permeable closure that allows incredibly small amounts of oxygen to pass through itself and allow the tannins to soften and mellow over time, usually years.
Of course, the reality is that Americans are impatient and do not – for the most part – lay any wine, red or white, down for any appreciable amount of time. I think the average cellaring time for a wine purchased in California is the time it takes to get it home from the store.
Our winemakers know this and make wines to be enjoyed young, decreasing tannins where possible. I will often open a young bottle of bottle, pour a half a glass, and swirl the wine and niff, put it down, then after a little time I will swirl and sniff again, and continue to do this until the alcohol flush blows off, the tannins dissipate, and the fruit comes forward. Too soon, and the fruit is either masked or too tart, but with a little air contact the wine opens up and becomes more enjoyable than when first opened.
Some winemakers, wanting their wines to be aged, will hold on to them and release them later than other wineries. Locally, Rosati Family Winery and Milano Family Winery both recently released their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, while other wineries are pushing their 2012 Cabernets out the door. I actually go through the same open, pour, swirl, and sip ritual with an older wine, and for the same reasons, so the wine shows better, is more enjoyable.
White wines do not spend time with skins and do not have the same tannin load. These wines are fruitier when held in stainless steel, although that may be muted by oak or other winemaking choices. You will see many white wines sealed with screw caps instead of corks because there is no need to soften or change the largely nonexistent tannins, and white wines are generally consumed at a younger age than red wines. Of course, there are exceptions and several white wines that can benefit from age and are sealed with a cork, like Chateau d’Yquem and other late harvest botrytised dessert wines.
I am a patient man, about wine anyway. I love the swirl and sniff ritual. Decanters allow a wine to aerate more quickly, as the entire bottle is upended and poured into the decanter, falling through air and splashing, which is great if you are going to finish the entire bottle but not great if you only want a glass or two.
Decanters also allowed wines to be poured slowly and sediment to be collected in the shoulder of Bordeaux bottles, but with most California wines being fined and filtered they are pretty much sediment free,
I will admit to being a fan of Vinturi and other glass specific aerators. Pouring a wine through these devices, it burbles, and air is force blended with the wine, causing it to taste like it has been breathing for a significant amount of time.
White wines, largely, do not need to be decanted, or run through an aerator, and tend to be better in youth. For me, open, pour, swirl, sniff, swirl and sniff again, taste, taste again – that works pretty well.
After opening a bottle, red or white, and enjoying a bottle or two, I like to spray some argon gas into the bottle to prevent the wine from additional oxidation, to stop it from breathing, so I can enjoy it again the next day, or later that week.
So, here’s my take: find a wine variety you like, from a producer you trust, and of a vintage that is good, try it, and if you like it then go back and buy some more because vintage is more important than age, and when the wine you love is gone then you’ll have to begin your search anew…but that’s not really a bad thing, that’s part of the magic of wine.