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How do you tell when a wine is ready to drink?

When asked at a tutored tasting when his Grand Cru Chablis would be ready to drink, the maverick Burgundy and Luberon producer Jean-Marie Guffens replied in his usual opaque way "It's not a question of when the wine is ready, it's a question of when you are ready". Guffens was, I think, attempting to get away from what he saw as the tyranny of 'the perfect moment', the year, the month, the day even, when a wine is 'at its best'.

There's no doubt that wines today are increasingly made to be consumed across a wide age spectrum. In reds, finishing the fermentation in barrel serves to soften the impact of tannins making the wine more approachable when young. And in whites, very careful sulphur dosing means that the fruit is available from Day One. This is both desireable and necessary as few consumers of even the best wines have either a good reserve of wine or a decent cellar to store it in. Good bottles are drunk ever younger.

But there is more to Guffens' point than this. It can depend on the circumstances. I recall a Best Wine Moment involving a 1982 Latour served at my brother-in-law's 40th birthday ten years ago. It was the best bottle in my cellar at the time and I hesitated momentarily before drawing it from the rack, convinced it was bound not to be at its best. It was served blind at the dinner party and, without being able to name the wine (he had never drunk Latour before) my brother-in-law could tell it was something very special: he was close to tears when the bottle was unwrapped. Yes, still a long way from being fully mature, but we were definitely ready for it.

What's the rule?
If there are exceptions to the rules, what are the rules? The science is still hazy, probably just as well, and of course there is a range of opinion. Readiness to drink is certainly something to do with development of flavour - a wine that tastes of fresh grapes is by definition a young wine - and it's something to do with texture and palate-balance, the harmony of the elements in the glass.

But there is another yardstick that while equally difficult to measure has served me well, and that's the structural development of the wine, the relationship between beginning, middle and end.

Very mature wines share common characteristics, a swansong bouquet allied to a short finish. To cite an example, I hunted down a 70 year old burgundy (Corton Grand Cru from Lebegue) for my father's 70th birthday. Family and friends gathered round to taste the wine immediately after it had been decanted. Both bouquet and taste were initially thrilling - the smell of the summer of my father's birth year in a glass - but within only a few minutes the wine had turned almost to water, its finish gone completely.

This is not a matter of number of years as such, but of where on its individual evolution curve a particular wine is. A simple vin de table may be at its limit after four years, a classed growth claret after forty. But when 'old' they will both exhibit the sensation of a lifted bouquet (a consequence of volatility) and an abrupt finish, the sensation of 'drying out'.

The converse is also the case. A young wine - relative to its life expectancy - will tend to be dumb on the nose yet will have a long finish. This is very evident in the case of highly structured wines tasted from barrel - a Burgundy grand cru for example, which can at first seem tasteless yet offer a seemingly unending palate. Simple wines go through this phase very quickly, usually before they reach the bottle and without great flourish. They are effectively mature as soon as they reach the shelves.

Taken together these pieces of evidence lead to a basic algorithm for wine maturity, one that applies to all wines whether humble or grand. It is grounded on the relative dimensions of aroma (beginning), flavour development (middle) and length of finish (end). If the last exceeds the first, the wine is immature; if the first exceeds the last the wine is approaching the end of its life; and when the three elements are in harmony the wine is mid-mature. This approach cannot provide the whole picture but nevertheless adds a useful dimension to the understanding a wine's cycle of maturity.

Hugo Rose is a Master of Wine specialising in evaluating fine and mature wines. He is a regular judge on Decanter panels and has written on food and wine, terroir and the en primeur system.


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