Age displays its own savory chemistry.
Participating in a wine auction weekend is an illuminating exercise in the physical and sensory changes between newly minted wine and wine that has had a chance to mature. What it offers a taster is the perspective of how old is old enough.
A few Sunday nights ago, Corliss Winery of Walla Walla poured their 2005 Cabernet Franc; on Monday morning, they offer the same wine from 2017. The 2005 inspired adjectives (that don’t communicate much) like “seamless”, “balanced” and “smooth”. By contrast, the 2017 had similar texture, similar alcohol, but the “seams” were everywhere. The alcohol was sharp, the tannins (that were so well integrated into that elder wine as to be unremarkable) were obvious and the fruit aspects of the wine were so assertive as to seem “hard” and “unexpressive” by comparison.
There was nothing intrinsically unappealing about the younger wine. It was only by contrast to its older sibling that inspired the seductive appeal of the older wine.
The physical and chemical explanations for the changes to our perception lie deeper than this explanation; but the bulk of wine’s changes in flavor find themselves in the reactions of fruit to air. Fruit oxidizes, flattens, turns a different shade of color with exposure to air – even faster without refrigeration – but ever so slowly in a sealed bottle. Cut an apple open and leave it on the counter for an hour to see oxidation in process.
Next, the other biggest agent of developmental change from young wine to old is reduction of the number of separate, disparate molecules and development of longer chains of similar or compatible molecules. When we say the wine is coming together nicely, it is as literal as it is figurative.
The impression on a taster needs no such explanation, no matter how simple or complex. Tasting mature wine is long touted by the viniferati as being “better”, while impatience and proximity to young wine often short circuits the ability to find out. As with all matters of taste, the difference to a taster is obvious, how to communicate it is not.
If the opportunity presents itself to try the same wine old and young, especially with more than a decade of difference between them, your palate will never be the same – nor will your sense of preference – but you will know if you need a wine cellar or not.
And thank you to the Walla Walla Wine Alliance for sponsoring such an eye-opening retrospective of the region’s wines, their winemakers and the spirit of camaraderie that infuses the valley.