On bottle age and expectations

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When Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier announced that his new policy will be to withhold the release of his exquisite Musigny until it approaches maturity, he began with an affirmation of a creed which has been taken for granted by generations of wine lovers:

“There will be no dispute if I say that no wine can be called “great” if it does not have the capacity to improve with age”.

Few would dissent from that general proposition; yet I am struck by how seldom people’s expectations of older wines conform with their lip service to the merits of bottle age. This is not simply a function of inexperience: only the other day, I overheard a taster celebrating the timelessness of Bordeaux’s 1961 vintage, and the next moment swooning with surprise at the youthfulness of the 2005 Saint Emilion in his glass. He was more than aware of Bordeaux’s well-established capacity to age, so why was he so impressed by the continuing vitality of a wine that was simply maturing correctly?

I suspect that the responsibility lies with the wine trade and press. The material pressures of the marketplace dictate premature estimates of maturity. A case of recently-released Château Latour, for example, may not reach true maturity for over three decades, but that is hardly a selling point, so merchants are unlikely to trumpet it. Nor does a tasting note that concludes with the drink window ‘2060-2100’ do much to promote a wine critic’s relevance and get his or her readers buying and opening bottles. Over time, premature estimates of when a wine is likely to mature can change the shared assumptions that constitute a wine culture.

Perhaps that’s harmless enough. But more insidiously, an attempt is being made to revise consumers’ expectations about the capacity of wines to age. This is most conspicuous, and most alarming, with regard to white Burgundy. I have been told that when a Meursault at age ten turns out to be oxidized, we must talk not of ‘premature oxidation’, but merely of oxidation. All one needs to do to refute that contention is open a great white Burgundy from the 1970s or 1980s alongside a newer rendition: compare Bonneau du Martray’s Corton Charlemagne in 1985 and 2005, for example, or Comte Lafon’s Meursault Charmes 1979 and 2008—in each case the older wine could pass for the younger. For the time being, with pre-premox bottles still in circulation, it is impossible to deny the facts in the glass; but in time merchants and producers may succeed in writing out of history white Burgundy’s true capacity for greatness. They have already succeeded with many of the wines of the Loire.

Which brings me back to the foundational relationship between quality and improvement in the cellar that Monsieur Mugnier takes for granted, but which needs to be defended by anyone who admires the combination of complexity and undiminished vitality which is the unique reward of bottle age. To revise our expectations would be to lower our standards.

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