What do we mean when we say a wine has fallen apart? As someone who regularly extols the virtues of bottle age, it seems appropriate to devote some attention to what happens when cellaring doesn’t bring improvement. And it seems to me that interesting discussions about the nature of graceful evolution in the bottle are precluded by the ubiquitous and rather old-fashioned phrase ‘fallen apart’.
‘These haven’t fallen apart!’
We’ve all heard those words, employed as an apologia for wines—and whole styles of wine—that their utterers admire but which others have criticised. The wines in question, we should note, are almost invariably relatively ripe, with comparatively low acidity and comparatively elevated alcohol. Once the debate raged about the Bordeaux’s powerful 1982 vintage; today, winemaking techniques such as micro-oxygenation and cross-flow filtration are often part of the controversy too. Do such wines improve with age? It’s a complex question, and we don’t get any closer to an answer when it’s reduced to a matter of whether or not the wine in question has, in some literal or figurative sense, disintegrated.
Of course, ‘falling apart’ is a perfectly appropriate characterisation of how some wines age. Consider a mass-market southern hemisphere Cabernet Sauvignon, ably engineered by industrial oenologists but never designed for longevity: with time, its estery fruit evanesces; its red hue fades to brown; its acids and tannins lose any sense of harmony on the palate—in short, it cracks up. That’s also a pretty intuitive description of what has happened to wines such as the leaner, meaner red Bordeaux of the 1970s: though the decade did produce some lovely wines, too many, it’s safe to say, exhibit decayed fruit, astringent tannins and strident acidity which become less and less well-integrated with each passing year.
But as a metaphor to capture what happens to overripe, overwrought wines, ‘falling apart’ fails badly. When wines like these fail to age gracefully, ‘collapse’ is a more salient description. After a decade in bottle, the mid-palate amplitude that extreme ripeness, new oak and a variety of cellar practices can bring begins to dissipate; an initially ‘pumped up’ wine deflates as the alcohol takes over, not only bringing heat on the finish but also denuding the wine of texture. An impression of heaviness sets in. Purity and focus on the palate diminish leading to a certain ‘soupiness’. (It’s not—with apologies to Yeats—that things fall apart; rather, the centre cannot hold).
Aromatically, the fruit begins to fray as oxidation sets in: in its early stages the uncritical observer may note aromas such as ‘soy’ and ‘grilled meats’, but what we are really witnessing is decay. That’s especially common with overripe Grenache and Pinot Noir. In other cases, wines simply get less complex with age: the youthful explosion of fruit, mingled with all sorts of complexifying empyreumatic nuances from both grapes and barrels, recedes into something much more banal: jolly rancher candy and a whiff of grappa.
All this tends to happen within fifteen years of the vintage. But for all their flaws, wines like these haven’t obviously ‘fallen apart’—yet. Their alcohol may be beginning to poke out, but they still cut a broad swathe across the palate; their flavours may have begun to degrade, but they aren’t cracking up. Where a decrepit 1974 Bordeaux is desicated and bitter, a collapsing Napa cult Cabernet will still be sweet and supple, even as it shows the first signs of oxidation. When we set the bar at ‘falling apart’, in other words, even wines which aren’t aging gracefully can be claimed as successes. So if we want to have a more meaningful conversation about how well wines age, we need a subtler vocabulary—and higher, more critical standards.