Saturday, December 16, 2006

To Age Or Not To Age

I was down in my cellar the other day looking for the perfect wine to go with our filet mignon, when I came across a 1996 Robert Craig Affinity cabernet that I had forgotten about. Now, I knew that I had probably waited much too long on this wine. But I figured it wouldn't get any better at this point and an aged, softened cab could be great with a tender meat like filet.

I was right...about waiting too long. There were hints of cassis, black cherry, even cocoa, but they were elusive. This wine, described as Robert Craig's Bordeaux blend, is definitely faded, in a state of decline. But it got me thinking, again, about the ageability of California cabs -- are they truly ageworthy?

Of course, this is a question that has been debated for some time. Some people firmly believe that California cabs with their fruit-forward style will not ever attain the cellaring potential of Bordeaux or Barolos from good vintages. But there's no doubt there are examples out there of terrific California cabs that have held up well for a couple of decades or more.

As for the Affinity, some have advised not waiting long at all to enjoy this wine. Still others have advised that it has great structure and cellaring potential -- including the winery itself. I have to say the latter seems more of marketing hype than sound guidance.

This kind of experience has reinforced two points that I have firmly believed for some time. Outside of some notable exceptions, assume that the California cab you bought will not improve for decades. I like to drink most of mine with 5 to 8 years of age on them. Second, you have got to read and absorb what reviewers say about the wine's characteristics, and not just note the score.

This second point is really critical. Wine reviews can give two different wines identical scores, yet describe them in completely different ways. This description is critical to any decision about whether or not to age the wine very long. If it's described as soft and velvetty right now, drink it soon. If it's described as powerful and tannic, it could be ready for long-haul maturation. Case in point, I've long enjoyed Pine Ridge cabernets. But the Howell Mountain cab and the Stag's Leap cab, while netting similar scores, are described quite differently by many reviewers. I would age one and not the other.

There are some great California cabs that will age splendidly, of course. Some friends had a '91 Heitz Martha's Vineyard several years ago and said they thought it was still tight. But I think it's safest to assume your cab will be best in under eight years. That's not a criticism -- I'm just trying to go with the wine's strength. Four or five years ago, a friend and I split a case of '97 Saddleback cabernet. When we tried it at a store winetasting, we both thought it was the richest, most chocolatey cab we had ever had upon release. When we had it again over the next couple of years it was similar and just as impressive. But three years later it had changed -- into a marvelous, more complex wine. But, oh, the memories of that chocolate experience would not let us go with the flow. It was one time where the sweetness of youth was just so overwhelming that the added complexity was not entirely welcome. Sort of like watching aging rock stars.

It's not easy to know exactly when is the right time to enjoy your better wines. In the end it's your choice. But my experience with new world wines is to live in the moment, and that moment may be sooner than you think.


Blogger Deb said...

Any good sparkling wines lately?

11:49 PM  
Blogger JD said...

Hi Deb...but of course. Don't know how long you've been visiting, but in case you missed this October post, check it out:

7:39 PM  
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