This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Louis M. Martini Winery, where an 85-year legacy of making Cabernet Sauvignon is still going strong. Everything Cabernet Sauvignon is celebrated at Martini. The history, the winemaking, the wine. Visit the Martini tasting room and sip a Cab inside, outside, in the cabana, or underground in the cellar. Or, try a full culinary exploration from the in-house chef. I’ll be there. The people at Louis M. Martini Winery are serious about Cab. Taste it, and you’ll know why Cab is king.
Every age-worthy, fine wine will reach its peak in flavor, aroma, and complexity at some point. But when — and how — does this happen? On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers breaks down the “magical” moment when an ageable wine is at its full potential.
He looks at some of the most famous wines meant for aging, such as Bordeaux, Brunello di Montalcino, Napa Cab, and Burgundy, and the science behind how they mature — both in barrel and in bottle. Tune in to learn more about peaking.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. I understand, I grew up in the era, “Rhythm Nation” is an incredible album. But when it comes to Janet Jackson’s catalog, I gotta go with “Damita Jo.”
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. How are you doing? Doing well? Good. What is it about a wine when it peaks? Have you guys heard about this? What does it all mean? Does it matter? Let’s get into it. Let’s understand it. It’s time.
OK, wine lovers. Before we get started, I want to let you guys know that in a few weeks we have a listener episode coming up. I understand, you listen to “Wine 101,” you’re totally informed. Your knowledge level about wine is kinda sky high. I get it. But is there something that I haven’t talked about that you’re like, “Why doesn’t Keith ever talk about this?” Or are you arguing with somebody about some aspects of wine? I don’t know. If you have a question that you would like me to answer on this podcast, on the listener episode coming out in a few weeks, go ahead and hit me up in my DMs @VinePairKeith on Instagram, and we’ll see if we can get a question answered on that episode.
Have you ever read a wine review — not all of them, but some of them — where at the end of the review, they’ll say, “Drink between now and 2028 or 2030” or something like that? What does that mean? Does it mean that, from the moment of the until some point in 2030, that wine will no longer be drinkable? No, that’s not how it works. What that reviewer is saying is that in the year 2030, that wine will be at its peak. It will be at its full maturity. What does it mean when a wine peaks? What does it mean when a wine has hit full maturity? This is a very interesting subject in wine, and it is exclusive to what the industry calls “fine wine.” All that means is, wine that was built to age; wine that will eventually be very expensive. As I’ve said before, there are not a lot of wines in the world that are age-worthy. These are only a small list of wines. The majority of the wines we consume are made for right now; young, vibrant wines that are not necessarily made to age but are ready for a Tuesday night or a weekend on the porch. I think you know what I’m talking about, just laying back and having fun. Casual, right?
When a wine is built to age, this is when soil, meso, macro, and microclimates, diurnal fluctuations of wind and breeze, vintage, vine age, phenolic ripeness, Brix level, all of this stuff is very, very important. Because the person that’s going to make a wine that’s built to age is going to scrutinize every single one of those aspects. Every little step builds something that’s going to last for a very long time in a bottle and or a barrel. And even then, however many years until it’s opened. I want to touch upon some of the stuff that happens inside of a bottle. Episode 10 in Season 1 is all about how wines age, which wines age, and which wines don’t. If you want a full fundamental knowledge of this, go ahead and check that episode out. Bordeaux, Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, some Burgundy, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon; we know about these wines. Even if you’re not into wine, you hear about these. These wines are famous because they’re expensive, but they’re expensive because they age forever. And they age forever because they were built to do so. They’re part of why wine is so beautiful and wonderful. They’re part of how we remain fascinated with wine and how it does this magic in the bottle.
What’s unique about this style of wine — this fine wine, this age-worthy wine — is that if you were to open one of these wines when they weren’t ready, you would know immediately that the wine was not ready. Mysteriously enough, it had more work to do inside the bottle. In a bottle, wine will change its texture. It will transform its aroma profile. It will change its entire personality over time. But like anything in wine, it takes time. That’s why we always say in the wine industry that wine is a living thing. Once the wine goes into the bottle, it’s not the end. It may not be the beginning, but it is a beginning. Like the “Wheel of Time,” a little Robert Jordan reference there for all you, “Wheel of Time” fans. It is a beginning in that, once that wine is in a new vessel and it has a different surface area, and it has a smaller space to interact with itself, the compounds inside that wine continue to interact with each other over and over again. Slowly but surely, it starts to change. But there are stages of a fine wine in its journey to maturity. Let’s talk about those stages or phases, and then we’ll get into this idea of maturity and peaking and what that’s all about.
When an age-worthy wine is very young, it is as juicy and vibrant as any youthful young wine to drink on a Tuesday. I’ve had some wines come straight out of the vat, I’ve tasted new wines about to go into barrel and all this, and there is a vibrancy. All of the stuff that was focused on hasn’t happened yet, because nature hasn’t had a chance to do that to these very young, juicy wines. But they’re not ready. I love what Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson says in the “Oxford Wine Companion” about how a wine ages. After it comes out of this juicy, youthful, vibrant stage, she says that they’re ready “at some unpredictable time, between a few months and a few years.” There it is, there’s that mystery. Nobody really knows. But at some point, that playful, juicy, awesome closes up and gets angry. Wine just shuts down. It doesn’t really have any fruit aroma. It’s all tannin. It’s all dimension. It’s no character. It’s not ready. This is actually one of the reasons why the laws around these age-worthy wines in Europe, are that the wines had to sit in the winery for a certain amount of time for them to come into themselves before they release onto the market. If you release a wine like this onto the market, no one’s going to enjoy it, unless they know that they’re buying wine not to open for months and months and months, which is not going to happen in a large, wide market. This is why in places like Brunello di Montalcino, wine must be aged a minimum of four years, including two years in barrel and four months in the bottle. They’ve been making wine long enough in Montalcino with Brunello — we’ll talk about that in an upcoming episode — that they know that the wine has to rest for that amount of time before it can even be released into the market to give you some sort of aroma and profile.
Sometimes, winemakers will think, “You know what, I think it needs even more time.” As laws were developed throughout Europe, especially in Italy, there is a concept of the “reserva” or the reserve, where winemakers let the wine sit for even longer before they release it onto the market. To stick with the Brunello di Montalcino example, if you want to do a reserva or reserve of Brunello di Montalcino, it must be age for five years minimum. Again, it’s all minimum. You can do whatever you want after that. That’s including two years in the barrel and six months in the bottle. But I got to say, wine lovers, I have had a lot of Brunello di Montalcino in my life. Having an Italian restaurant, you’re surrounded by it a lot. I’ve tasted Brunello di Montalcino when it should be released, and the wine still isn’t ready. The tannins are still way too harsh. You can smell some fruit, but it still needs more time.
Wine is crazy like that, but as the wine interacts with itself over time, it starts to reduce itself. This is all in the aging episode. And as that happens, it begins to enter another stage. In that closed up stage, it slowly but surely starts to settle itself, and you start to get what the wine wants to show you. But maybe not all of it. When I’m writing wine reviews of these sort of age-worthy wines, I’ll say things like, “Drinking well now, but could still be aged for another X amount of years.” Because wine is so variable from all around the world. We’re talking about age-worthy wines here, whether it’s Bordeaux, Napa, Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo or something like that. Even though it’s ready for market and drinkable, you can still tell on the palate that it has more reduction to do. It has to reduce itself more. It’s not done yet, but it still has that wine vibe that it wants to give you. It hasn’t peaked yet — put a pin in that.
What’s really happening here is, all of the organic material and all these different little constituents that make up wine — mostly the organic stuff like phenolic and tannins — continue to interact with each other. Some of them actually bind together, and that binding creates weight, and then that weight turns into what will be sediment and falls to the bottom of the bottle. What’s happening here? Like I said, the wine is reducing itself. I didn’t want to say shedding, but it’s shedding its younger self and showing us something different. It’s science, really. But when this stuff happens, the tannin becomes a frame, or almost melts away more than it is center stage. The color of the wine begins to change. Whether it’s white or red, red kind of goes a little bit brackish around the edges, and white tends to brown a little bit more. There’s this word called hydrolysis, where all those flavor precursors that gave us the original primary esters of fun, fruit aromas, they’re attached to something called glucose. Over time, the hydrolysis means that it soaks and soaks and soaks until they detach from the glucose and become something else. A lot of stuff is happening right now. What I’m really trying to say here is the wine is taking on a completely different aroma and textural profile. The tannins have melted away a little bit. It’s a little bit more acidic. The punchy fruit flavors are gone. Now, you’ve entered into this new level of aromas, which we call tertiary aromas. People consider them to be a little more sophisticated because sometimes the aromas are more on the savory side, and they remind people more of truffles. Or if there was a cherry aroma, then it becomes cherry bark. It’s a little more subtle; a little more sophisticated.
When you smell wine and it’s the nose of a wine, at this point, it’s no longer the nose. The industry calls it the bouquet because there’s so much more to enjoy. For white wines, as they subtly brown, they take on denser aromas like a butterscotch or caramel. Sometimes, even salted caramel, because the saline can be there for a long time. But it’s right here where everything in that bottle is in its Goldilocks spot. Everything is just right. That wine has been in that bottle for a certain amount of time, and it was in the cellar and barrel for a certain amount of time. Right here, right now, when you pop that bottle, it is at its full maturity. It is the apex of what this wine should be. That’s why people say it peaks. After this moment, it’s going to change and go a different way. But right now and right here, it’s perfect.
Here’s the catch: No one knows when that is. There are predictions. Like I said, if winemakers have been making wine for a very long time in one place with one vineyard, they’re going to know when their wines peak. They’re going to give you an idea. There is going to be a very tight window of when they think the wine is going to peak. Then, wine gets distributed throughout the world; it changes in different environments once it leaves the winery. So anything can really happen. You never really know when a wine is going to peak. But here’s the good news: Wine peaking is not how you enjoy age-worthy wine. It doesn’t have to be, I should say. Before a wine peaks, it’s still delicious. After wine peaks, it can still be delicious. I must say that after wine peaks — and all that means is after all those organic compounds have done their job and the wine has gained weight and shed that sediment to the bottom of the bottle — it’s never going to get that back. That sediment will never go back into the wine. After a wine “peaks,” it starts to reduce even more. Wine continues to reduce and reduce and reduce until it turns into vinegar, or what we sometimes call the “gray stage,” where the fruit is gone and there’s no complexity. What’s happening is, alcohol will always be there, acidity will always be there, but all the organic material will continue to interact with each other, gain weight, and either dissolve into the liquid or fall to the bottom of the wine. So after a very long time, even in the most age-worthy wines, they’re just gone. They’re musty, they’re weird, they have no fruit character. They’re just gone. That’s the thing about old wine.
I experienced this once. Somebody came to me with a very old red Burgundy. It was from 1947. I was initially very excited; let’s taste a very old wine. It didn’t taste like wine. It just tasted like musty grape water. It was a very expensive, very famous, well-known Burgundy. And here I am sipping it and it’s gone. At some point, that Pinot Noir, that Burgundian red wine, peaked, and it was at the height of its organic, full maturity. But then it wasn’t sold. It probably moved around at an auction house, and over time it just kept on reducing to the point where, when we sipped it, it was gone. I also, at one point, had a very old red wine, but it wasn’t from the 1940s. It was from the 1970s, and it was a Barolo. Oh my God, it was unbelievable. It’s one of those moments where, whether or not you’re in the industry, when you put a wine like this on your palate that’s at its peak or right near its peak and you can feel it, it’s undeniable. I don’t care where you are in your wine journey. If you smell a wine at its peak, it’s amazing.
That’s what peaking is. It is this idea that, at some point, that wine in that bottle is going to reduce to the point where it’s perfect, and then it’s going to keep on reducing. You have to find that moment in time to drink it when it’s perfect. But none of us know when that is with any wine. Even if the winemaker or some expert tells you, you’ll never know. That’s the beauty of wine: its inconsistency. That’s why at this level of age-worthy wine, the vintage is very important. That’s how you know, a general idea of where the wine is in its maturity.
I hope I helped you guys understand this whole peaking, full maturity thing now. It’s going to happen a lot. You’re going to see it a lot out there. But now, you know what’s actually happening and you don’t have to be obsessed about it. You can be. I sometimes am, but you don’t have to. I’ll talk to you next week.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.