Sunday, November 04, 2018

Aging vs. Evolution (In Old Wine and Young Humans)

In a recent article for Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, Ian D’Agata made a case for age worthiness in regards to a white Italian wine, Verdicchio. Being a lover of Verdicchio I devoured the article (link here, subscription required). While digesting the piece over the last week, I’ve put my mind to the concept of wine as it ages. Along with that, there is, in my mind at least, an inevitable comparison of those factors of ageing in wine with those human beings face as well. The grape and the hominid have closely trod the same path for eons. And while that journey is far from over, for both of us, hopefully, we do share some of the same challenges and opportunities in our stages of life.

• Prenatal development – where did it grow? How did it grow? How well was it fed? How healthy was the place in which it grew?
• Birth – what kind of harvest was it? Were there chemicals used to induce labor? Hand harvested or machine (or forceps)?
• Early days – how well was the young being, or wine, nurtured and kept? Exposure to toxic or damaging influences? Tranquility or constant agitation?
• The idea of what a wine, or a being, will become, based on the influences they had early on. Education – home schooled or via a larger institution? Expectations? Some wines and children are raised up naturally. Some are brought up in a stricter, more aseptic environment. How that affects the future prospects of that wine, being.
• Maturation date – the big “if” for many wines. With humans there is the aspect of emotional maturity, with wines the notion of what kind of “stuff” it has to go whatever distance is intended. Evolution is also a consideration, in that there will be a route, a progression, an arc in which both we humans and our silent partners, wine travel. More on this later.
• The prime of one’s life.
• What comes after the mountaintop.

One thing I notice in the US with regards to things with age on them – it seems aged wine is more revered than aged humans. In America, youth (in humans) is the default setting for exaltation. With wine, it is a bit more fluid. But there are many out there who worship aged wine just because it is old. Even if it is flawed. With humans, if they are flawed and old, they’re pretty much done for by society-at-large, at least here.

We should consider the source. If it is someone who is young in the game and they’ve just tried their first 1971 Barolo, it might be a stunning revelation to them. If you are a Michael Broadbent, while it might stir you, it is one of a number of experiences that has been had with regards to older wine, and there is a different context. It might be noteworthy, but it might not be exceptional. Point in case. Somewhere around 1985, I remember my boss asked me to go pick up some BBQ from a local place for our lunch. When I got back he’d opened up a magnum of 1911 Château Lafite Rothschild. While it was an interesting old wine, it had dried up and was a bit feeble (may be bottle variation). We moved on to another wine.

A few months later, I’m in Chicago at a Christie’s auction and tasting a 1959 Château Mouton Rothschild, with Mr. Broadbent. The wine was vibrant, rich, and delicious. Tasting with him gave it even greater context, for this wasn’t the first time he’d had this wine. Was it ready to drink? It was then. And it might very well have been later on (I have not had the fortune to return to the wine to see how it has faired in the past 30+ years). This was a wine that was 48 years younger than the 1911. And while it wasn’t young, it wasn’t really an old wine. But it was definitely a more memorable experience, and in my estimation, a greater wine.

Now, admittedly, I’m refencing some of the top-quality wines from the world of wine. What about other places? Like the Verdicchios that Ian D’Agata notes.

I’ve had my share of older Verdicchio and have noted those occasions more than once on this blog. I remember one experience, opening a 1983 La Monacesca Verdicchio di Matelica, around 1998. People weren’t really talking about older white wine from Italy 20 years ago, but at the time, it was a revelation. The wine exhibited notes of freshly ground coffee (which I loved) and had this briny, brightness to it. It had a good acidic backbone, a trace of mineral, and still a healthy dollop of fruit. The wine was balanced and, obviously, memorable. And it was fifteen years old, fairly aged for a white Italian wine in that era.

But I have had less-than-memorable experiences as well. The 1991 La Monacesca was spotty, tasted over the years. Sometimes lovely and ready, and sometimes a mess of age and fatigue. The 1992 as well, once a bright sunrise of a wine, and once a tired wet, rainy, muddy sunset behind the clouds. One really never knows.

So, when I read someone tasting an older wine or older wines, I often wonder just how much that person projects onto the wine something from their own interior life? If it’s a fifty-year old who maybe has the emotional maturity of a teenager, that’s a different take on life than a 20-year-old who’s had to spend the last five years of her life tending to a dying mother. Again, context.

And then there is this reverence for an older thing because of what it represents. Often, wine seems to have to edge on the person, in that we give more weight to, let’s say a 1947 Cheval Blanc, than is given to someone born in that year. Oddly that was the year Robert Parker was born. Perhaps not a good example, for both the Cheval Blanc and Parker are legends in their own right. And possibly they’ve both reached the zenith of their existence prior to this present moment? Still, what they both represent. And still, how forgiving we tend to be of wine, lesser so with humans, Parker included. That troubles me.

Which brings into the conversation the aspect of evolution. In time, there are all kinds of timelines for evolution. Owls are evolving at a different pace than possums. Wines, too, evolve differently. So just because some thing is old doesn’t make it age worthy. How many old people do you know who don’t seem to keep up with the times? The worship of something just because it is old, rather than for its relevance or the context, to me is simply too easy. And then, there’s luck. A bottle of wine, stored miserably in the bottom of a counter for years, when opened, is glorious and breathtaking. A wine taken out of a pristine cellar, with impeccable provenance, when opened, is flat, muddy and dead tired.

I know there are some wines in my petite armoire that have aged. Some maybe even to the point of senility. I’ll know sometime soon, when I pull them all out and take a proper inventory of them. I know I don’t mind drinker younger wines as much as I used to. Winemaking in these days has had a hand in that, making wines with more suppleness in youth, not so unbearably tannic as they once were.

We humans seem to always want what we had or what we can l no longer get. Youth, aged wines, love, privacy, adulation, time. I for one, am happy if I have drunk up all my old wines. Yesterday I was at a cattle ranch in Texas and at lunch we had this beautiful young red from Angiolino Maule, a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend from the Veneto region. It was very young, 2015 vintage. What a gorgeous youthful wine it was. I am easily consoled by the pleasures of youthful wine like that, and don’t care what age they or I am, from this point on.

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