Vine talk: Not all wines get better with age

Tue Aug 24, 2010 6:05am EDT
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(Felix Salmon is a U.S.-based financial journalist and a Reuters blogger here. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Felix Salmon

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - You probably know, or think you know, that fine wine gets better with age. But how do you know that? It is probably not by tasting a large number of fine wines of various vintages.

Instead, you're just taking it on trust, often from the kind of wine snobs who will sniff and swirl and spit a wine, but now swallow it, and declare with all the puffed-up authority they can muster that it will be "drinking well from 2017 through 2027."

Such proclamations tend to be extremely unhelpful except for people who aspire to become wine snobs. Even if wine really does get better with age, you can only benefit from being told such things if you can a) find the wine now; b) afford to buy it without drinking it; c) store it indefinitely in carefully temperature-controlled conditions; and d) somehow be able to cross-reference your wine collection with a database which tells you when the perfect drinking years finally roll around so the wine isn't forgotten.

Fine old wine is drunk every day, by people who are very happy that it has been aging for a decade or two. But for every bottle that fits that description, there's another bottle which has been gathering dust for far too long.

If it's drinkable at all, it's flat, uninspired, and likely to taste of nothing in particular, especially after 10 minutes in contact with air. There are millions of these bottles, all of which should really have been drunk years ago, and many of which are being treasured by owners who have delayed gratification for so long that it has disappeared entirely.

Meanwhile, the world of vintage wine is becoming more out of reach for the middle-class, with fine Burgundy and Bordeaux now an international commodity beloved of wine investment funds. No longer can such wines be bought for relatively modest prices when young, with the expectation that they would appreciate just as modestly over time.

Once upon a time, colleges, clubs and restaurants would barely change over decades, and would happily replenish the old wine they were drinking now with new wine they intended to drink in many years' time. Something similar would take place within families: wine-loving patriarchs would drink the bottles bought by their fathers and grandfathers, while building up their own collection for their sons and grandsons.   Continued...

<p>Bottles of wine are displayed at the Alimentaria trade show in Barcelona in this March 26, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Albert Gea</p>