Ageing Wines – Why Bother?

Here we go – another off-shoot of my Nota Bene vertical tasting from earlier in January. This is something that I think is an extension of many other articles that I’ve been writing lately. On we go…

Why bother buying a bottle of wine and then waiting 7 years to open it? How ridiculous is that? Why do some people do it?

20140425-193555.jpgI’ve had more than a few customers guffaw at my suggestion that this or that wine can be aged for up to 10 years. The typical reply is something like, “Wine doesn’t last more than a few days in our house!” and then they look to their spouse / friend / entourage for the requisite approving laughter.

Most wine made today isn’t meant for long-term ageing. I remember a wine teacher of mine saying that 99% of all wine produced is meant for consumption within 2 years. Most of it probably will be anyway regardless of the producers’ intent.

So what is the point of ageing wine?

Mature wine tastes different. A well made wine is smoother, more complex, and full of nearly unidentifiable aromas and flavours that would not have been apparent without age. The way that I describe it to customers is that young wine has all kinds of easily identifiable flavours – black fruits, red fruits, cocoa, chocolate, vanilla, campfire smoke, etc. As the wine ages, those flavours will change, mutate, and intertwine into things like coffee, burned almonds, and maybe blueberry teacake. As the wine gets even older, the flavours become less easy to identify. They turn into something that still smells good but for some reason just doesn’t trigger a sense memory as easily. This is where the most bizarre descriptors, that some people like to make fun of, are often used. A very good taster will be able to perceive some of these aromas earlier on in the life of the wine and be able to predict what will happen as it ages.

Up until about 50 years ago, wine making technology had not yet evolved to be able to make a wine that was palatable when it was young. Only certain areas producing softer wine styles (like Beaujolais) were able to produce wines that could be consumed very young. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, mature wine was preferred in the Roman empire and it was also possible that the Greeks aged their wines as well. It was not done in bottles as we know today but rather in casks (barrels and larger vats).

DSC_3031Bottles sealed with corks became available for ageing in the 17th century but this did not become widespread even by the time of Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century. Bottles were (and still are) difficult to transport safely without breaking so bottling at the destination was common until the early 20th century. Even still, the wines weren’t really ready to drink.

It wasn’t until the invention of certain winery techniques and technology that people were able to make wine that was ready to drink sooner. Protecting the grapes, juice, and young wine from oxygen was a new thing in the 20th century. Fine filtering was new as well. Fermenting the whole berries or even whole bunches of grapes without crushing them first made the resulting wines fruitier with less grippy tannins and therefore, easier to drink sooner. This, I think, is the New World’s biggest stylistic contribution to the world of wine.

20150123-095548.jpgOf course, that march of technology didn’t just end with that. Membrane filters, micro-oxygenation (a technique pioneered by winemaker Patrick Ducournau in Madiran, France to tame the insane amount of tannins in that appellations’s Tannat grapes), reverse-osmosis and spinning cones, yeast nutrients, and bags of tannins, acids, and colouring agents all give wineries the ability to manipulate all kinds of aspects of a wine’s flavour profile so that the wine is smooth, tasty, and easy to drink almost immediately. The result was smooth wine in no time at all. It was wine for impatient people.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that at all. We need wine in the marketplace (and to be perfectly honest, in my house) that doesn’t have to be aged. What I am interested in here is encouraging people to try saving some of those bottles that are capable of ageing because I think they are missing out on some truly amazing wine experiences. From my point of view, it’s like watching someone purchase a Ferrari who only plans to use it to get around on slow city streets and never take it above 2nd gear. Buying a top-quality, age-worthy wine and drinking it within the next 6 months is really missing out on a great experience. I encourage everyone who buys those kinds of wines to hold on to at least one of them for a little longer.

It’s not only red wines that can age. We’re very lucky here in BC to have an abundance of natural acidity that Rhys Pender MW claims other wine regions around the world would love to have. It is acidity that helps preserve whites for long-term ageing. He mentioned that as part of the 5 year vertical of Clos du Soleil that I attended a couple of years ago. The complexity of the flavours was astounding and I enjoyed every single wine in the vertical of Capella. (I very much regretted drinking my 2007 white – it wasn’t called Capella then – far too early.)

Here is a list of some BC white wines that I’ve had success with ageing, either on my own or as part of tastings or events (in no particular order).

  • Clos du Soleil Capella (aka White)
  • Tantalus Old Vines Riesling (I’m holding onto a few of these)
  • Orofino Riesling (same with this one)
  • 8th Generation Riesling (and this one)
  • (notice a trend yet??)
  • Domain Combret Chardonnay (at 16 years it should have been salad dressing at that point, but it wasn’t)
  • Painted Rock Chardonnay
  • just about anyone’s Late Harvest or Icewine (the ’93 Riesling Icewine from Lang was beautiful but still not quite ready in 2010)
  • Road 13 Sparkling Chenin Blanc

And reds…

  • Black Hills Nota Bene
  • Clos du Soleil Signature
  • Mission Hill Oculus (and the other 1st generation of BC Meritages – Pinnacle, Osoyoos-Larose, etc)
  • Just about anything from Fairview Cellars or Kettle Valley
  • Hester Creek Cabernet Franc (and many Cab Franc – I think this is a great variety in BC for ageing.)
  • 2nd Generation Meritages (Laughing Stock Portfolio, Poplar Grove Legacy are the ones I’m familiar with)
  • Nk’Mip Syrah (always a staple at their wine maker’s dinners)
  • Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir (the ’97 in 2009 was ridiculous)
  • Painted Rock Syrah (I haven’t tried them all in a vertical yet, but if you check back here next January…hint hint)

I may have forgotten some but it’s a start. It’s not easy predicting which wines will age and which ones won’t. I’m had some go off that I thought would be sure to do well. Unless the winery has been in business longer than 10 years (which is not very many of them at this point), they won’t really know either. They can tell you what they think will happen based on what the winemaker has intended to happen, but that’s not always a sure thing either.

In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. If you haven’t ever had an aged wine, there’s a possibility that you might not like it. If you don’t like the aroma of apples and flowers soaked in kerosene, don’t age your Riesling because that’s very likely what they will become. I’ve had aged Riesling and I absolutely love those aromas so I know that’s what I’m interested in waiting for.

So I encourage you to try, just try, to put a few bottles away of wines that you enjoy and want to see through to maturity. It takes the whole wine experience to another level.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

The Terroir of Tasting

I believe that where and when we taste a wine will have an effect on how we perceive the wine. The physical conditions and environment of the person along with those of the wine will influence perception. I call it the “Terroir of Tasting”. How can wineries better prepare their own wine shops to have better tasting terroir for their customers? The same is true for music – listening to a song at a loud concert with all of the sensory stimulation that comes with it (light show, smells, other people, etc) is very different from listening on an iPod in the dark – so why not for other experiences like wine?

Don’t agree? Try pouring a glass of your favourite wine into the most suitable stemware that you own. Turn on some appropriate music, light some candles, maybe prepare a little food to compliment the wine, and then… take that wine and drink it while sitting on a bucket in a broom closet with the door closed.

Not the same experience, is it?

“The wine tasted different at home than it did when I tasted it at the winery,” said more than a few customers to me over the years while working at a wine store. There must be reasons for that and it may help understand the terroir of tasting a little bit more. It’s not a scientific study or anything (this is a wine blog after all, not a peer-reviewed academic journal) but are a collection of observations based on my own experiences. Just like in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, science generally proves what art has already figured out first. A great article recently in The Guardian also touches on this subject as well.

So, why do the wines sometimes taste different when you get them home? Let’s explore…

1. Travel Shock

Wine bottles get shaken up a lot while they are travelling. While there’s nothing scientific to prove that the wine is somehow different after arriving home, I think it’s always a good idea to let the wine rest for a while (maybe a couple of weeks) before opening it after coming home from your wine country excursion. Just like wine, we can be travel shocked in a way as well. Having a glass of water is a little boring during a meal but I’m pretty sure most people think it tastes pretty amazing after a vigorous run or a workout.

2. Decanting or Ageing

Sometimes wines poured in a tasting room have been open for a little while. They may have been exposed to oxygen for an unknown amount of time and anyone who has worked in a wine shop pouring the same wines each day for years knows that the same wine will change as it is being pour throughout the day. (I always used to feel bad for whoever had to taste the top 2 inches of wine from a freshly opened premium bottle of Cab Franc at winery where I used to work.) It may be that you, as the wine customer, tasted the wine at a point that you really enjoyed.

While I’m on the subject, glassware is also hugely influential on how a wine will be perceived. Notice I didn’t say how a wine will taste. Some styles of wines just show better in some types of glasses. I did a podcast about this early on using a Pinot Noir and the results were astounding even though we were all a little sceptical that it would make a difference at all. I’ve visited a couple of very promising new wineries and been very disappointed because, for whatever reason, they skimped on the glassware or were using glasses that were entirely inappropriate – wrong size or shape for the portfolio, or just plain cheap. I’m not saying that every winery has to have Riedel Vinum XL’s or anything but if the winery plans to sell a $45 meritage as the top end of their portfolio, it won’t show very well in a $3/stem thick-walled wine glass they bought in bulk at Canadian Tire.

3. Palate Fatigue

20141108-213136.jpgEven professional tasters admit to palate fatigue. Everything starts to taste the same and none of it is good. Or at least the distinguishing flavours are a little more blurred than they would have been. Tasting the wines at the 7th winery of the day is going to be different than if it had been the 1st winery that day. It’s not rocket science to figure that out. Wine makes us hungry and after we’ve had food, our tastes seem to settle down a little.

4. Bombardment of the senses

Wine tasting is really a multi-sensory experience. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer was intently interested in creating works of music that encompassed more than just listening to sound. Schafer (in the late ’70’s) listed the traditional Catholic Mass as a true multi-sensory experience because it involved all of the senses (sight – the beautiful church, smell – incense, taste – communion, sound – music, touch – kneeling) and this was a huge influence on all of his works. His best music had to be experienced in person and some of them sound utterly ludicrous without the proper context. Hearing 12 trombones perform around the edge of a lake in the wilderness is vastly different than listening to the same music on an iPod while waiting for the bus in the rain in Vancouver. (A completely random example that I may or may not have experienced myself…)

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

I’m amazed at how little thought goes into the acoustic environment in a wine shop. Live music can make it feel more like a special event and some wineries have really built a tradition with having regular live entertainment. I created a whole project designed for performance in wine shops and have personally seen what adding music to the mix can do to lighten the mood. Thornhaven, Dirty Laundry, and Sonoran in Summerland and Hester Creek in Oliver all have regular music performed throughout the summer months. There are probably others who have live music but these wineries have been doing it for a long time. Does that effect the tasting terroir? You bet it does.

Colours help as well. Is the environment bright or subdued? I’m amazed at how many so-called ‘architects’ or ‘designers’ think that dark brown or black is an appropriate colour for a wine bar. Thankfully we’re seeing this change with the newer, more thoughtfully designed spaces like the bright white spaces of Painted Rock in Penticton and Liquidity in Okanagan Falls. Other wine shops have more earth-toned ambiance that also work well. I love the differences between each wine shop because it really expresses the different personalities of each location. Rustico‘s shop is an old-time saloon, cluttered with wine, signs, and products everywhere and it’s great. Meyer Family Vineyards is surrounded with windows that show the vineyards rising up all around them and it’s spectacular when tasting around that focused tasting bar. Ancient Hill‘s wine shop is a classically grand and has unique views without loosing its cosiness that really contributes an elegance to the wines.

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape '12

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape ’12

The only sense that needs to be restricted is the sense of smell. A stinky wine shop will not sell much of anything although neither the customer nor winery owner will be able to put a finger on why. Possibly the only thing aromatic that I can think of that will enhance the experience is a yeasty, cellar aroma which is part of the wine’s own natural habitat anyway. Terravista in Naramata has their tasting platform (it’s a piece of glass across some barrels) in their tank room and it’s a cool experience tasting the wine steps away from where it was made surrounded by all of the sights, aromas, and ambiance of the cellar. I remember tasting the first vintage of Painted Rock‘s Syrah outside of their old, tiny tasting room after it had just rained – the smell of wet earth lifted the syrah right out of the glass. It was an unbelievable experience.

Scented products like soaps or incense have no place in the wine shop to be sold as gifts. Those scents are distracting and can interact quite badly with the wines. I did a test at a wine shop where I worked some years ago: An otherwise beautifully scented soap turned an otherwise beautifully scented Pinot Gris into the pleasant smell of rotting flowers instantly. We opted not to carry that product.

Unless all of those winery smells are exactly the same at home, it’s likely that these differences will influence how you perceive the wine once you are home from your trip to wine country.

5. Context

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

Church and State’s comfy tasting bar

Then there is the context of the wine drinker and the wine itself – where are they in their day? Is there an optimal point for both to get the most out of wine? This is a big part of what intrigues me about what I do in wine sales. Wineries sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by not taking into account the ‘terroir’ of their tasting rooms. They can’t control the timing (when a customer will actually taste a wine or how many wineries they’ve already been to) but they can be aware of their tasting room environment. There is one other thing that can be either beneficial or detrimental to a customer’s wine shop experience and it’s something that I’ve found that I am tolerating less and less the more wineries I visit.

The tasting bar. There’s just something about it that has always bothered me. In terms of efficiency (getting the most customers through the bar quickly) it’s hard to beat. But I don’t have a bar of my own at home and if I did, I’m not sure that I would drink my wine standing up at it. When I go to bars, I usually get to sit down rather than stand. After visiting a half-dozen wineries, I find standing at them to be kind of tiring. None of this occurred to me until I stopped working at a winery with a tasting bar and started at another winery without one (FYI – Black Hills). It was a truly enlightening experience because I realized that the customers were getting an entirely different experience without having to stand uncomfortably at a tasting bar. They could relax, listen, have a proper conversation, and actually take the time to enjoy the wine rather than “splash and dash” through a portfolio of 8 wines in 5 minutes before hitting the road. Black Hills isn’t the only one doing this. Culmina has sit-down guided tastings and you can also sit down at both Church and State‘s and Painted Rock‘s tasting bars. Mission Hill and Hester Creek both have tours or experiences that feature guided tastings in different locations away from the typical tasting bar. Did all of these wineries really put a lot of thought into their customer’s tasting terroir when they deigned their building or set up their wine shop? You bet they did and it shows.

Conclusions

It’s time that wineries in BC start to thinking about how they present themselves a little more. Some wineries have not really given the ‘tasting terroir’ of their wine shops much thought and it shows. I’m sure that most of the successful wineries have already done this and realize how important it can be to presenting their wines as best as possible. It can also be taken a little too far where the experience overshadows the wine by a long shot (where most people remember the experience but can’t recall anything about the wines).

If you are a winery, please take the time to consider how your guests are experiencing your wines. Little changes can make a big difference in sales.

If you are a tourist in wine country, take the time to appreciate the effort that a winery has put into their ‘tasting terroir’. Some of those special touches can be used at home to make your own wine experiences more enjoyable.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Podcast 128 – BCWine 101 Okanagan Falls

20130218-203437.jpgWelcome to BC Wine 101, where I will focus in on a different wine region in each episode. This is for anyone who is interested in learning about BC wine but with a particular nod to the wine bloggers who will be traveling to Penticton for the Wine Bloggers Conference coming up in June.

You can listen online here or download our podcast on iTunes.

Okanagan Falls (or as the locals call it, OK Falls) has a wide variety of wineries and scenery. Some of my all-time favourite BC wines come from this region. The Okanagan Falls Winery Association represents the marketing and promotional needs of the majority of wineries in this region and in this podcast, I speak with marketing and events coordinator Kristin Peturson-Laprise about what makes Okanagan Falls so special.

MacIntyre Bluff and Vaseaux Lake, looking south.

MacIntyre Bluff and Vaseaux Lake, looking south.

Here are the wineries in Okanagan Falls to remember:

Blasted Church
Blue Mountain Vineyards
Kraze Legz
Liquidity Wines
Meyer Family Vineyards
Noble Ridge
Painted Rock
Pentage
See Ya Later Ranch
Stag’s Hollow
Synchro Mesh
Tangled Vines
Top Shelf
Wild Goose Winery

20130218-203429.jpg

I have had some amazing experiences in the wineries and vineyards of Okanagan Falls. My first wine touring experience ever brought me to Okanagan Falls in 2003 where I learned a little more about how to taste wine in a wine shop from an awesome host at Hawthorn Mountain Vineyards (now See Ya Later Ranch). My first job in a winery as a cellar hand was in OK Falls. I have interviewed many winery owners and wine makers for this podcast and other media. It is a place that I truly enjoy visiting any time I can.

There are both long established family-run wineries and historical vineyards there alongside newly built boutique wineries that are creatively following their own vision. It’s a very dynamic region where you will find rich and bold Merlot’s at one winery, beautifully aromatic whites at the one next door, and unbelievable sparkling wine just around the corner. Far from being scattered, this area represents the diverse Okanagan wine experience in microcosm, where the drive, passion, science, and creative artistry all meet at the south end of Skaha Lake.

Cheers from wine country,

~Luke

Painted Rock

The vineyards of Painted Rock Estate Winery from the west side lookout above Skaha Lake.

North to OK Falls

Looking north from above Vaseaux Lake. Hawthorn Mountain is on the left. Blue Mountain is behind the bluff on the right and Noble Ridge is center.