Samui Wining & Dining
Now or Later?

Some wines age gracefully, whilst others are born in their prime!

 

23Time is an odd thing. Our scientists call it the fourth dimension. And, like it or not, it affects everyone and everything, minute-by-minute, year-by-year. Buddhist teachings say that nothing lasts forever and everything changes. And certainly people are not immune (yet) from the ravages of time (unless they cheat a bit). Some grow older and become wise and distinguished, but the less fortunate simply become decrepit. And wine is very similar. It’s one of the very few things we consume that can improve with age, even as much as fifty years. On the other hand, in the modern fast-pace consumer society, some wines can be drunk almost minutes after they’ve been made. But for many wine enthusiasts, the vins de garde (wine for guarding) are unquestionably superior. Why? And why is it that such mystique attaches itself to an old bottle of wine?

 

Most whites, rosés, light-bodied low tannin reds and simple low-priced wines of any colour, such as Beaujolais and Valpolicella, are actually at their best when young. The pleasure in drinking them is in their freshness and (what’s termed) primary scents and flavours (meaning just one step away from the grape). The great white wines and most of the best reds, however, are grown to be as full of their own particular character as possible. When still young they contain a cocktail of unresolved elements: acids, sugars, minerals, pigments and, most crucially, tannins. Good wines have more of these than ordinary wines, and great wines have even more again. Which is why, in the end, they contain more flavour and burst onto the palate with, to use a modern term, ‘the wow factor’. But it takes our old friend ‘Father Time’ (and exposure to oxygen) for these elements, the primary grape-derived aromas and the secondary ones of fermentation, of yeasts and oak barrels, to resolve into a harmonious whole. And for development of the distinct aroma of maturity, often called the bouquet.

 

In today’s highly technical wine making process, many good wines are brought to almost full maturity during barrel ageing. The wine, gently maturing in oak barrels, is subjected to closely regulated oxidation. It also has the wood itself as an agent of change. Picking up musty characteristics, like vanilla and, in certain cases (depending on the oak), sweetness. This is why the oak variety is as vital today as ever to the wine maker when building a wine’s character. But timing is everything; if left for too long in a barrel, a light wine fades, loses colour, its fruitiness disappears and it starts to taste flat and insipid. Whereas in a bottle, it would have retained its delicate flavours better. The ageing that takes place inside a bottle is totally different and almost the opposite, in fact. Rather than absorbing oxygen, the wine gradually loses it.

 

In the bottle, tannins interact with pigments and acids to form new softer compounds. Red wine pigments are destroyed, causing loss of colour (and gains in complexity and sediment). Tannins likewise become less astringent. And at the same time, the acids and alcohol are reacting with the residual oxygen. The equivalent process in white wines, which have very little tannin, is more complicated. But it results in a gradual darkening in hue, to a more lush golden tone. And crisp acids mellow into honeyed, nutty or buttery complexities.

 

Now, I can hear everyone saying: “Yes OK, thanks for the science lesson, but what I really want to know is, when will my wine be at its best?” Well, for the majority of the world’s wines, and for virtually any wine found here in Samui, the answer is now. If freshness and fruitiness is a wine’s charm, as it is with most New World wines, there’s no sense in keeping it. The introduction of screw caps (now across the board in Australia and New Zealand) would further suggest that the contents of the bottle have been painstakingly made ready to drink.

 

Although some would argue not, the simple fact is that the only wines that most of us even care about the vintage of are the crus classes of Bordeaux (and some red Burgundies). Interestingly, there is no English translation for the term vins de garde. We tend to know which wines they are by tradition and price. The classical wine aficionado’s thinking is that a higher price is justifiable because the wine has the potential to age, and thus gain in value. True, in the case of the highly-sought-after (read: low production) famous-name iconic Chateaus, such as Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Margaux. But the length of time wine enthusiasts are keeping high profile wines before drinking is decreasing (to less than 10 years in some cases). And in the 21st century, the almost guaranteed increase in value is not necessarily true with other (less iconic) premium wines. Although, I’ve heard that California’s best Cabernet Sauvignons benefit greatly from ageing, as do the fuller-bodied Italian Barolos. And the gracefully seasoned and seductive ladies of Germany, Riesling and Mosel, are the Kylie Minogue and Halle Berry of the older wines.

 

No one can stop time, we are all ageing, and so is our wine. So, when it comes to wine consumption, I’m inclined to fall into the, ‘there’s no time like the present’ school of thought. “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think,” is the opening line of a popular old song, I believe. Of course, exactly when to drink a truly fine (and very expensive) wine is partly a matter of privilege and of personal and even national taste. The British aristocracy of old was notorious for their ‘hang it till it drops’ philosophy. And their French counterparts frequently took a twisted delight in committing ‘infanticide’ – drinking an expensively rare classic vins de garde before it had a chance to fully develop. Sacré Bleu! C’est un crime de vin.

 

Peter James

Wine Guru

 


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