The term “old wine” used to mean something. When someone opened up a so-called classic vintage of Bordeaux or came up from their cellars with twenty-year old Burgundy, there was a magic in the air that everyone at a table could feel. To drink a truly old wine was to take a step back into history, to conjure up an image of vines surviving in a very different France, California, Italy, etc. than what those places are today. Part of the magic of that experience was that, when we thought of a year like 1979, with its geopolitical agony and economic struggles, we could imagine those vines fighting the good fight alongside the populace around them, giving us a glimpse of who we once were in the wine they left behind.
Today, people my age (twentysomethings, shudder) in the United States are drinking more wine than ever before. The barriers of access to wine-appreciation have gradually fallen, particularly in metropolitan areas in the United States, and wine has found a normal presence in tiny apartments, at parties, and in the zeitgeist. What young people are not drinking however, is old wine. The popularity of wine is greatly focused around affordable but exciting wines, often from obscure regions that were long ignored but are now incredibly fashionable (places like Vinho Verde, Languedoc, Campania, and Greece.) These wines are young and fresh, wines that are not necessarily ‘simple,’ but are made for instant gratification. (Sort of like Selena Gomez.)
It is thus understandable that the focus of young wine drinkers whose interest extends beyonds mere affordability is in wine trends specifically connected to young wine. Natural wine, orange wine, Beaujolais Nouveau and similar ‘nouveau’ wine styles – these are all trends that are specifically catered to young wine. Wine without sulfur will have a very, very difficult time aging on your shelf because of its high volatility. Does that mean you shouldn’t buy natural wine? Fuck no. But what focusing on young wine does is it makes us forget about the importance vintage plays in the wine game.
Vintage is, simply, the year a wine was made. (Woo, got through that one.) At a slightly more complicated level, it is the year that the grapes were harvested, which is sometimes not the same as when those grapes are fermented and bottled. Sherry and champagne for instance, very rarely have vintages, because grapes from different years are combined to produce an end product. The majority of wine however, does have a vintage and in good wine (yes, I am throwing shade at most of your under-$10 favs) the vintage should tell you something about the wine you are going to taste.
In an era of cheap and accessible wine, some winemakers chemically alter their wines so that every vintage tastes consistent. Chances are, if you open a bottle of Yellowtail Chardonnay, every vintage dating back a decade will have tasted identical when drunk fresh, because Yellowtail wants its consumer to count on a particular flavor profile each time. This is the WORST. Wine from the same soil shouldn’t taste the same year to year because as people in New York City can attest to, weather ain’t the same minute to minute. Every year brings a different amount of rainfall, a different number of insects, radical shifts in topsoil from natural disasters, long heat waves, or – devastatingly for vines – hail and frosts. The weather from each day during the growing process of grapes affects those grapes and will affect the end product in the bottle. Period. An usually warm year is going to give you a red wine that is generally more alcoholic, fruitier, and sometimes chaotic. A single day of hail can wipe out almost a full year’s crop. There isn’t a Psychic Friends Hotline for winemaking honeys, you can’t anticipate what is going to happen to your lemons so you best pull a Beyonce and make the best damn lemonade you can make.
The pleasure of buying old wine or keeping bottles of wine to age – which, look is not an easy process in a twentysomething’s apartment, I get it – is that once you’ve reached a point where you have a particular wine you like or a winemaker of whom you are fond, you can experience that same wine in a completely different way from a different year. Think about Miranda Priestly’s iconic speech from The Devil Wears Prada. Cerulean fresh on the runway has a particular flavor, then it’s expressed on the rack, and after a few years it might be expressed as a shitty assistant’s sweater from Target. But then, years later, it might be at Bergdorf again! It’s the same damn color, it’s just as circumstances change, that color is expressed in a product with varying results. Even cooler is that wines change in the bottle – a vintage that might have sucked when released might prove to be a darling after ten years as tannins begin to mellow or fruit flavors begin to intensify. That stupid bargain basement sweater will eventually become a cult item that will make you look uber-chic. Or fugly. Sometimes old wine is dead. DEAD DEAD DEAD. It’s a game and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Finding back vintages of wine you like may be hard and as I said, sometimes its logistically impossible to safely store your wine in an apartment that is perpetually freezing or unbearably warm. However, if you find yourself at a wine store where the employees actually care about your wine experience, ask them if they have two different vintages of the same wine for you to try. Take them home, put them in two glasses side by side, and have yourself a little tasting. Compare the color, the intensity of flavor, the tannins, the feeling of the wine in your mouth. Sit down with wines. Stand up with the wines. Take the wines into the bath with you. (Lol jk, I know you don’t have a bathtub.) Conjure up where you were in 2012 vs. 2013. Relish the magic of seeing the same wine in two different ways.