Sommelier Masterclass Part 3 - Buying For Maturation

“How long will this wine last?” or some variation of that question, is probably the most common inquiry by lay people when presented with a novel, especially premium, bottle of wine.

“Why would you want to keep it?” I usually respond. Not to intimidate my audience. No. But rather so we can address and demystify the very strange behavior of hoarding perishable items for no apparent reason.

The more pertinent question might be: When will this wine drink at its best?
In previous articles we took a stab at defining what a sommelier is, their role in the on-trade and how one might go about structuring a small wine list. In this article we’d like to delve a little deeper into the process of buying wine with specific focus on buying wine for maturation. We’ll take a look at how a wine develops over time, which wines are more suited for maturation and hopefully provide a compelling argument for more farms, distributors and restaurants to start their own maturation program.   

 

Why do we mature wine? Simply put, to make it taste better. 
Wine is an esoteric topic. Drinking it is often more of an involved hobby – akin to travelling, reading, exploring, or, without sounding pretentious, appreciating art – rather than merely a social lubricant. Yet at the same time, the vast majority of wine is none of the above; it’s just another commodity. A fun, wholesome way to socialise. 


Even so, at the very fringes exist some of the most complex, superlative expressions of terroir. Confusing, subjective, rare and expensive, this double life wine leads can cause quite the debate. Especially when some of the best examples simply do not taste very nice. Yet.


These are wines with grimacing tannin, mouth-puckering acidity, dull fruit and oak sticking out like a small child with a tambourine banging away in the foreground while the adults are trying to conduct a symphony. One of the hardest jobs of the sommelier is predicting the future, and then spending money on it – hoping those hard tannins will smooth over time, that the fruit will open up, balance out the oak as well as the acidity, and with a little more patience, develop the complex tertiary character that so infatuates us wine geeks.


What actually happens when a wine matures?     


Wine is a constantly evolving product. The outcome of which is dictated by a myriad of factors. 


In Part 1, we spoke of objectively judging quality by applying the age-old formula of balance, length, intensity, complexity and concentration (BLICC). Balance, being the most crucial, achieved when all the components of a wine are in harmony. This, however, is often not the case in a young wine. 
Imagine for a moment that to smell something, a small part of it needs to come into contact with your nose. The aroma molecules literally have to touch you. Consider then that each wine has a finite amount of these volatile molecules, and for them to be released, the wine needs to oxidise. The very air we breathe slowly releases these aromas while simultaneously breaking down the wine. The key word here is ‘slowly’.


Structure in wine then can be defined as the elements that slow this process down. Tannin has been used for centuries to preserve leather, while acid served as a pickling agent and alcohol as a preservative. All these “antioxidants” are complemented by a touch of sulphur and judicious winemaking, which pull the reins on the inevitable oxidation and slow the maturation process down, allowing the real magic to happen.


With enough structure, enough primary fruit, a cool cellar sans any dramatic temperature shifts, and a slow, very slow, ingress of oxygen, these aroma molecules become less trapped or ‘more volatile’. They start to balance out the aroma of the oak, make the acid less perceivable on the palate and slowly start morphing within the confines of their bottle. Once abundant primary aromas slowly become what is commonly referred to as more tertiary: savoury, earthy or meaty. What once was a plethora of only cassis can slowly become a bouquet of red currant, mint, cedar, cigar and the list goes on.


While the aromas first achieve balance and then complexity, the tannin is also evolving. Tiny particles, once so small they got stuck in your taste buds, slowly start to polymerise. They form little strings, longer and longer, until they simply glide over your tongue, dramatically changing the perception of smoothness.
But – there is a big, full-bodied, mouth-watering but! Too much of anything is bad. Too many times we see “special” bottles of wine kept way past optimal drinking. What was once a prized bottle from the most sought-after producer, from the vintage of the century, kept in the most pristine cellar, will still eventually turn to nothing. 


So when will it drink at its best? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and each wine is made differently. Each bottle evolves slightly, sometimes very, different, especially when you apply a decade or more of maturation.
Large bottles mature slower than smaller ones due to a process known as thermal inertia. The more wine you have, the slower it warms up and cools down. A magnum thus matures slower than a regular bottle of wine, resulting in often very different flavour profiles. Even the slightest variation in ullage (the amount of air at the top of the bottle), compounded over many years, will have a marked effect on the final product.


And then there's personal preference. You might like your Cab with a little bite and easily definable red fruit. Or you might prefer a mature Chenin that shows all the complex nuances of toasted nuts, honey and its characteristic tinned fruit medley. It’s up to you.


There are some rules of thumb though. A wine should ideally be held back until the fruit has at least opened up and the tannin has started to integrate. Few things are as sad as serving an outstanding bottle of wine long before it compares to lesser rivals. In the end there are so many variables, so much understanding of the product needed, that managing a maturation programme becomes one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of a sommelier’s job.


And for the customer, one of the greatest pleasures of a well-developed programme is the opportunity to explain to the steward exactly what you like, and finally being able to appreciate the joys of an infinitely complex and constantly evolving product.


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