I had a delightful and most impressive dinner at the home of some friends this week. The food was amazing (this is what you get for knowing chefs!) and we popped open a 2004 Domaine Durand Cornas. Cornas is a region in France's Rhone Valley and the wine is 100% Syrah. (It generally does well to age one, simply because they can have pretty aggressive tannins. Bitter and drying when it's young, but silky and complex as it ages.) Right out of the bottle, it had some serious funk going on- my hostess likened it to band-aids and blue cheese- but its tannins had softened a lot. It had a wee bit of a veggie thing going on at first too.
We sipped slowly and enjoyed, but by the end of dinner, it was nothing but fruit- pretty flat, which was sort of surprising.
Thinking about why this happened, got me thinking again about how darn cool wine is. It brings me back to the idea that wine is the intersection of art and science. Just awesome. Like everything in our universe, it's really just a series of chemical compounds bonded to other chemical compounds. Some of these are pretty weakly bonded and evaporate right away, and some take a long time, some even form anew inside the bottle, which is why flavors change and evolve! Exposure to oxygen speeds up the breaking away process, which is why we keep wine so closed up.
In a 10 year old wine, the most volatile of these aroma and flavor compounds had broken away a long time ago, so generally what is left is are the really tightly bonded compounds. Once they get some oxygen exposure, though, they're going to start to break free and become the smells and tastes that you experience!
You may've heard me say that 80-90% of the wine on the market is meant to be consumed within 5 years. The reason for this is that most wine is not sturdy enough, tannic enough, or complex enough to stand the test of time. Even a perfectly inserted cork will let in some oxygen, so the wine will never be the same as it was the day it went into the bottle (this is actually a beautiful thing. ) So, in the case of the majority of wine on the market, their compounds break down and evaporate too quickly. So, while some people may claim that old wine turns to vinegar, this is usually not the case (unless it has been exposed to bacteria.) It will just be the most boring, characterless wine you've ever tasted. You'll likely get boring, flat fruit flavors, and a weird, dusty, metallic aftertaste- not much more.
So, what happened with this Cornas? Well, most likely, it was aged just a few years too many. The flavor and aroma compounds had broken just a little too free in the bottle. The ones that were left tasted and smelled pretty great when first poured, but quickly dissipated, leaving only the most simple of flavors and smells. Not bad, certainly not vinegar, but I think my host was disappointed after all these years...
The good news was that he wisely opted not to decant- Decanting would've introduced even more oxygen into the wine, releasing all those compounds super quickly! That would've been a drag (the only benefit I can see of decanting a super aged wine is to get maximum wine out of the bottle without getting sediment into your glass.) Many slightly younger, bolder wines would do well with a decanter, but not this one!
I confess, I've not had any wines much older. I think a 14 year old wine is the oldest I've had. It was a Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape, and it was, hands-down the coolest wine I've ever had (a kick ass gift from my awesome boss at the time, Mindy.) We did decant it, and it rocked. A divine accompaniment to our Christmas roast.
Any of you have any memorable aged wines (either good or bad?) Share in the comments!