NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Wine experts insist that even the rarest vintages are meant to be drunk. Collectors who ignore that advice could end up with six-figure vinegar if they choose poorly.
Wine collection can be a tough, unforgiving process if you're in it for value and not for the wine itself. Great wines that survive frost, drought and Nazi occupation such as the 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild can sell for as much as $57,500 a bottle, as a case did at Christie's six years ago. Then again, an $85 1991 Pinot Noir that just happened to be bottled during a warm vintage can taste absolutely repugnant if a buyer lets it sit for nine years.
The latter happened to Ryan Sharp, winemaker and co-owner of
and wine shop in Portland, Ore. He'd bought the bottle from an Oregon winery he'd known and enjoyed for years, but lacked some essential background information on that year's vintage. Normally, the tannins and other acidic/phenolic compounds found in the stems, seeds and skin of pinot noir grapes would preserve it, but a warm weather vintage throws off the acid and fruit balance or "structure" of a wine and leaves it ill-equipped for aging:
"It's just like with anything else: Oxygen is going to eventually spoil it," Sharp says. "That's just how our world works."
It's also evidence that generalities suggesting red wines always age better than white, old world wines always age better than new or that sweet wines always age more poorly than their drier counterparts don't hold much water when you get down to specifics. Large winemakers including
and even smaller vintners such as
can balance out a bad vintage by adding acids or create vintages specifically designed for immediate drinking.
Still, with only a small fraction of the world's wines capable of improving with age, there are plenty of warning signs to look for and spots to avoid if you're looking to invest in a wine with flavor and value that only improves with age. With help from Sharp, we came up with five wines that don't age particularly well and don't give the buyer any return on their investment unless enjoyed with some urgency:
OK, this is a broad oversimplification, but Sharp and just about every other winemaker in the world will tell you that red wines heavy with tannins tend to age better than white wines overall. The tannins and other acids act as preserving agents and give even weaker vintages more of a fighting chance than the average white.
Let's say, for example, that you're a fan of Pinot Grigio and want to see how an expensive bottle would fare in your cellar. Unless you're planning on opening it a month to a year from now, it likely won't have the structure to stand up to any further aging. The same would apply to a collector who wanted a bottle of the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that beat four French Burgundy chardonnays at the Judgment of Paris wine tasting in 1976. That wine may have set the wine world on its ear, but the richer, sweeter American versions of its varietal that can cost upward of $60 to $75 tend to fall apart pretty quickly. Even a chardonnay as strong as the 1973 would have a tough time aging well after nearly 40 years.
"I don't know that I'd say that, across the board, sauvignon blanc doesn't age well," Sharp says. "There are some really beautiful old Bordeauxs that have aged quite well."
A 1811 Chateau d'Yquem Bordeaux became the world's most expensive white wine when it sold for nearly $120,000 last summer. That particular vintage's high sugar content and acidity allow it to age indefinitely, but even seemingly lightweight wines such as Riesling can age well under the proper circumstances. Sharp just warns that aging a white wine strips away fruity flavors and replaces them with an earthier taste than may not be considered an improvement.
"For a white wine, especially in America, what most people enjoy about it is that it's crisp, refreshing and fruity," Sharp says. "It's not going to stay crisp, refreshing and fruity on your shelf."
Yet another highly disputed category where, in general, bottles just don't tend to age well.
This typically isn't a concern to buyers of 30-liter Armand de Brignac Nebuchadnezzar Champagne plated in gold and featuring a giant ace of spades on the label. Russian millionaires, Jay-Z and Wyoming horse wagering mogul, big-money gambler and "champagne king" Don Johnson aren't going to let that showpiece age beyond last call.
If you're spending $50,000 on 180-year-old bottles of Veuve Clicquot or hundreds to $1,000 on '90s vintages of Krug Champagne and Clos Du Mensil, however, it can be a bit bigger roll of the dice than some casino big spender's bar buy.
"To me, champagne can age quite well, too," Sharp says. "Things with sugar in them have a great ability to have microbial problems just because sugar is such a basic food source for anything and it's an easy way for a wine to spoil. They don't always spoil, and there are some great sweet wines that have aged 20, 30 or 40 years."
The secret, as with most older wines, is the acid. If a particular vintage captures just the right acidity and can hold it together for years on end, the result can be a less fizzy but rounder bubbly.
"Acid plays a huge function in preservation of anything, which is why people who are making an avocado salad might spray some lemon juice on it just to keep it from oxidizing 30 minutes before a meal," Sharp says. "If there is a high-acid champagne, and most champagnes are made with unripened grapes and are going to have really high acid to them, they're going to age well."
A warm vintage
Want to know if a wine of any variety is going to age well? The almanac's usually a good indicator.
If wine grapes are grown during a particularly warm year, the grapes tend to be riper and more sugary. That's great for impatient folks who want to get to the drinking right away, but not so much for someone looking to age a wine for any length of time.
As Sharp discovered, even wines such as pinot noir that normally age well and fetch a high price when sold won't make it very far when they're a warm vintage. How can you tell a warm vintage wine from a cooler year if you don't have an almanac handy? Look for noticeable dips in price from year to year. If the 2008 seems like a deal compared with the 2007, chances are the later vintage soaked in a lot more sun. Still, warm vintages shouldn't be dismissed in all cases.
"Wines that come from warmer vintages are generally enjoyed earlier, while wines from cooler vintages are generally a little more ageable," Sharp says. "That's a huge generalization to make, because in winemaking people will add in tartaric acid in a really warm year to help it age."
New World wine
Didn't the Judgment in Paris put this whole New World/Old World quality discussion to bed? Maybe on the shelves, but apparently not in the cellars.
"It's a huge generalization, but most wines out of France that are $50 or more are going to be able to spend 10 years in a cellar," Sharp says. "In the new world, it's very different and there are so many styles people are making now that's it's tough to say this one should age well and this one shouldn't."
So if you've come away with a great $45 shiraz from Walla Walla, $60 Chardonnay from Napa or a $40 Cabernet from the Finger Lakes, how do you know how it's going to fare in your cellar compared with their French, Italian and German cohorts? Stay in touch with your winery and don't be afraid to buy multiples. At worst, you'll get to drink some good wine sooner than you thought.
"The way to only hedge against bad aging is to buy two bottles," Sharp says. "Either find a way to stay in touch with the winery or buy two to three bottles of their wine, drink one in six months and the other in two to five years when you can see the trajectory of the vintage."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.