I was asked recently that question by a friend who purchased four cases of a very nice red wine how long will it last before hitting its apex (begin turning bad). To answer this question requires a deeper dive into chemistry, viticulture, history/precedence, storage and a little luck! My initial response after tasting it was between six to eight years from now or eleven to thirteen years from vintage date. But that is based on having years of experience tasting and cellaring wine. So now I was researching the “why” behind it to provide more definitive guidance to my friend. The wine in question was a 2016 Madorom Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.
While these comments are based on science and experience nothing is for certain! So a quick refresher: drinking wine too young you are left with it being too fruit forward. Drinking it too late, it is a flat red tasteless liquid. But if you hit it just before its apex of full maturity, you will unleashed the miracle of that vintage.
The four key variables for red wine that can be aged are: chemistry, viticulture (vineyard management and terroir), the winemaker and storage. First chemistry which involves various facets of knowledge including the interaction of oxygen with polyphenols (tannins, color pigments and flavor compounds), acids and alcohol. All have a role in wine development and maturity. The phenolic elements in red wine come from “the grapes anthocyanins (color pigments) from the skins, and tannins (structure) from the skins, pips and stalks” to quote Rupert Joy, wine writer. A wine of deep coloration usually will have a longer life. So the first thing to notice is the color of wine in a crystal wine glass as a solid indication. The reason for understanding the color is from length of skin contact which produces concentration of polyphenols.
The second variable is viticulture or what happens in the vineyard. The “terroir” may have the ability to produce quality tannins. Yields are also critical during the maturation process stemming from the vineyard. Vines and grapes are each struggling to get the appropriate amount of nutrition, minerals and water. Too much fruit and you are left with less than optimum grapes on the vine. That is often why winery’s in their vineyard management state “they dropped a percentage of fruit” off the vine. If wineries were allowed to let the vineyards grow unchecked they could have 7-10 tons of fruit on the vines. Higher yields but undesirable fruit for winemaker with reduced phenolic content. Similar also with old verses new vines. New vines produce bigger grapes (juice) and thinner skins. With shallower roots this allows the vines to suck up more water and thus lower in phenolic compounds.
The third is the history of a wine/vineyard over time. That is key with old world wines as they have history on their side. New world wines have limited history and precedence in comparison. Also the “magical dust” bestowed by the winemaker. This comes from the length and temperature of maturation (grapes giving up their polyphenols). Additionally items such as amount sulfur dioxide, filtration, yeasts, barrel choices (new vs used) and type of barrels (French, American, Hungarian, etc.). The interaction of the barrel allowing tannins to be added but keeping out unwanted excessive oxygen is a very tight waltz between the two. It is needed to get the desire tannins and anthocyanins and the process helps to stabilize the wine’s color and structure. Key is the alcohol level and acidity level that they purpose in their skills of a varietal.
So once the pedigree of the wine is understood, chemistry, viticulture, history and the winemaker, the next portion that is critical, “laying down” wine for future consumption. Here again the gains are worthwhile, but can be totally lost by miscalculating the wine. Key for storing wine are: constant temperature, limited UV rays (even by lighting), limiting bottle movement, laying it on its side, keeping the cork moist and correct humidity levels. The Holy Grail of storage is knowing when the wine is about to hit its apex from the initial bottling.
So how is the consumer to know all this? When purchasing a “good quality wine” it is helpful to get the winemakers notes which talk about its ability to be aged. Normally acidity, pH levels and phenolic intensity are not listed on the bottle! Nor is the age of the vineyard and yeasts. So take the age ability from the winemaker, pour a glass to see the color, smell the wine for fruit and then taste the wine for the aromas/flavors and on the finish understand the acidity and tannins levels. So if a winemaker states this wine is good for 15 to 20 years and you buy 4 cases, I typically “guard band” their view by 10%. I would then put it into the cellar for 13 to 18 years as an expiration date. Additionally, I would taste a bottle every 6-9 months to understand the changes and how it is maturing. You can always change the expiration date (pulling in or pushing out) based upon your tasting experience.
Some additional suggested reading material:
The final comments are from a conversation with Mike Blom who is the winemaker at Madorom. Hopefully these comments will help confirm some of the information above:
- The grapes for the 2016 vintage came from two vineyards. One off the Silverado Trail and the other from Pope Valley. Clones were mostly #4 and #337.
- The vineyards were both 10 years of age.
- They age the wine for 3 years in barrel. They use 26-28% new oak and the balance used/neutral oak. 70% are French oak and 30% American oak.
- The 2016 harvest was a wet year with a late rain, which required a longer hang time for the grapes to ripen.
- The 2016 harvest was the 16th harvest for Mike at Madorom.
- Mike has 40 harvests to his credit and is extremely knowledgeable.
- BTW, I called Mike after I had written the article and asked how long to hold the wine. He was in complete agreement with initial assessment.
Previously had never tasted Madorom wine before but it is on my radar going forward as it was delicious and age worthy for a cellar. Hope this brief article is helpful for you getting the most out of your wine.