Catch ’em Young!
“Youth is a blunder; manhood a struggle; old age a regret,” said British PM Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). And he would know. As a young man he was ruined when he sank his fortune in a South American mining scheme that went bust : blunder. His adult career was a see-saw battle for control of the English government against William Gladstone : struggle. In his dotage his big regret must have been that he didn’t have much of an old age, dying just weeks after his retirement.
While these words certainly capture the essence of Disraeli’s life arc, they do not define the destiny of many wines accurately at all. Mainly because most wines are made to be great in their youth and only a few make it to the struggle phase, and fewer still, live to regret having lived too long.
Here’s the general progression of the wine making process if you’re starting from scratch. You plant some vine clippings. You wait about seven years for them to mature enough to begin producing fruit good enough to bother making wine. By the end of year seven you bring in your first credible harvest and ferment the juice. You then barrel your wine and wait about another year, or longer. Then you bottle the stuff and cellar it for another year or five. Close to decade or longer later you’re ready to send your product to market. By this time you’re also probably anxious, near bankrupt and pretty darn thirsty.
Luckily for us, there are plenty of vineyards that are well past their infancy and there are producers who have centuries of experience and regions that have recorded the progress of their wines enough to know what kinds of seasons produce age-worthy wines and which ones don’t.
Of the age-able wines we hear a great deal. They’re the ones with the big digit price tags from chic chateaux, touted tenutas and ausgezeichnet Anbaugebiet. Naturally, the venerable wines land the favorable reviews and garner accolades at the world’s varying county fair wine competitions. This is quite a feat considering only about 5% of the wine produced worldwide is made to age.
The other 95% is made to be drunk now — or at least as near to now as is possible. (There is a bit of time bending in the aging of wine that even defies the Theory of Relativity.) Yet, in certain circles the notion of drinking young wine, that of the same year, or a year or two after its release, is tantamount to serving green bananas.
Drinking wine when it’s young is a treat on several levels. First, it’s fresh. Ordinarily fresh is not a term people bandy about when they gush about wine but throughout the Old World a fresh glass of wine is integral to the pleasure of the meal. Bistro fare and a young Cabernet Franc, slightly chilled, elevates more than just one’s mood. And tapas with a joven wine, or Andouillette with a zingy, juvenile Riesling, let’s face it, regional fare with youthful local wines is a great gateway to real enjoyment.
Another reason to go for the youngsters is because if wineries waited around for their riservas, gran reservas and grand crus to reach a proper maturity, that they would be sending so little wine to market that they would go broke and many of us would be suffering from “brewer’s droop from drinking beer.” For an example of how acute this situation can be one need look no farther than Montalcino, home of the riserva Brunellos that aren’t allowed out into the light of day until they’re a minimum of five years old. If you are a winery that’s a lot of unrealized revenue. To allay this situation the wineries in the area decided to create a new, younger class of wines, the Rosso di Montalcino. They languish in the cellar for just six months before release and are as pleasingly acidic with as much, or more, vibrant fruit, as their coveted older counterparts.
From a practical perspective the best things about younger wines are the most prosaic. They’re cheaper, they’re easier to find, they’re a great source of immediate gratification. For me I like that young wines are less demanding, in that one seldom feels the need to solemnly quake, roll their eyes back in the head and shudder with ecstasy while muttering praises to their favorite deity. Avoiding that kind of reaction never gets old.
A few random terms to look for when shopping for young wine. Please note that the presence of these terms on a wine label is not an indication that the wine contained therein is delicious:
Beaujolais Nouveau: (France) Released the third Thursday of November every year. It is meant to be enjoyed immediately. Opinions differ concerning its quality.
Joven: (Spain) A term applied to any DO or DOC wine; typically the wine sees little or no time in oak and is sold as a fresh and fruity wine.
Crianza: (Spain) Any DO or DOC red wine that has been aged a minimum of 24 months, with six months in barrel. In the regions of Navarra, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero, that minimum barrel time is one year. White wines must be a year old, with six months in barrel.
The varying names for table wines best drunk young (or in some instances, not at all. Exercise caution when shopping in this category. There are many simple pleasures and just as many wines that are best avoided.) :
Vin Ordinaire/Vin de pays: France
Vin de France: new category as of 2010
Vino da tavola: Italy
Vino de mesa: Spain
Vinho de mesa: Portuga
Quality Wines Produced in Specified Regions (QWpsr) appears on wines that adhere to European Union regulations and their quality standards framework.