Matured wines are the wiser choice
Matured wines are the wiser choice

Until the 18th century wine enjoyment — for even the most sophisticated consumers — involved a race against the inevitable deterioration caused by oxygen. 

Bottle maturation, as we know it, is the art of retarding this decline, thereby enabling wines with the potential to evolve to achieve a plateau of perfection and remain there for as long as possible.

For most of human history, ageing wine wasn’t even a consideration: it required far more than simply a sedentary lifestyle. Storage and, more importantly, preservation posed serious challenges. It took the advent of commercial bottle manufacturing and the discovery of cork as a suitably sanitary and anaerobic closure to discover the extraordinary transformation that occurs when great wine is left to evolve over an extended period of time.

The ancient Romans knew that sulphur dioxide worked as a preservative, but it made young wines unpalatable. As a result, sugar and alcohol became the key tools in extending the shelf life of wine. This is why the great fortified wines enjoyed such commercial success. Madeira, Malaga, Marsala, sherry (known as “sack” in Shakespeare’s England) and Port dominated international commerce and were only superseded (and very slowly) in the past two centuries.

Until then, dry unfortified wines were largely consumed in their regions of production, or shipped short distances to nearby markets. One of the reasons that claret (the lighter red wines of the Bordeaux region) became the beverage of choice among upper-class Englishmen was the relative proximity of the port of Bordeaux to the market of London.

The enjoyment of bottle-aged wines is therefore relatively recent. To judge from trends in SA and abroad, it may already be going out of fashion. Though nowadays we have an ample supply of bottles and a wide choice of closures, we don’t appear to have the patience, storage space or inclination to give fine wine a crack at greatness.

Winemakers the world over are aware of this trend, and have become adept at producing wines that are easy to consume from the moment they are released. Whereas even 50 years ago wine went to bottle with harsh tannins and quite angular acidity that needed time to settle down, riper fruit (thank you climate change) and gentler extractions have made young wines perfectly accessible.

But there’s a vast difference between polish and complexity: just because you can now knock off a two-year-old shiraz without reaching for a Rennies doesn’t mean that you are getting the best the grapes could offer. The slow evolution of noble varieties can yield three distinct stages of development: the initial primary, fruit-driven phase; the more complex, better integrated secondary phase; and, finally, the fully developed, fully aged tertiary phase. This is best epitomised in cabernet from the great sites, though it is equally true of fine pinots, chardonnays, rieslings and chenin blancs.

The relatively new fashion of consuming wine within a few years of the harvest has become an unnecessary reversion to how things used to be before the advent of bottles with cork closures. It is swiftly producing a generation of wine consumers (and wine producers) who don’t know how to engage with properly mature wines. I have attended tastings where there’s a palpable preference for the youngest wines: the showy, juicy primary fruit is more easily understood than the more restrained, more layered secondary notes.

This year’s Old Wine Tasting (which traditionally precedes the first day of judging at the Trophy Wine Show) produced an extraordinarily high success rate considering the rules: red wines 25 years and older, white wines 15 years and older. Of the 24 wines presented to the international judges and their local counterparts, a remarkable 22 passed muster.

Highlights included a fabulous Springfield Methode Ancienne chardonnay 1999, a delicious Rudera chenin blanc 2001, a finely structured Bellingham cabernet 1991, really good cabernets from Kanonkop 1980, Rustenberg 1978 and Zonnebloem 1974, a spectacular 1974 Meerendal pinotage and a truly wonderful Chateau Libertas 1967 — the last-mentioned served from the half bottle.

This column first appeared in Business Day. 

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