Halliday - - Q&A -

Q.Some wines are proudly badged “Old Vine”, such as Tah­bilk’s 1860 Vines Shi­raz. We see a lot of old vine shi­raz, caber­net and grenache. But do all grape va­ri­eties keep on im­prov­ing as the vines age, or do some have a dis­tinct ‘use-by date’?

James Bell

A.There’s a re­la­tion­ship be­tween vine age and qual­ity, but it’s not a lin­ear one. In the­ory, 20-year-old vines on a great site will out­per­form 100-year-old vines on a poor site, for in­stance. Once a vine­yard reaches ma­tu­rity, it’s not a given that the grapes it grows will get bet­ter and bet­ter for­ever after. But then – and this is in many ways the crux of the is­sue – a vine­yard is un­likely to last 100 years if it’s a poor or in­ap­pro­pri­ate site. A kind of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion goes on, where only the best sites and vines sur­vive the ebb and flow of fash­ion and fi­nance

(not to men­tion cli­mate) over time. That is, it’s not just vine age that makes the end wine taste bet­ter; it’s that the site has proven it­self time and again to be worth keep­ing. A few other points should be noted: a) it’s pos­si­ble to make high­qual­ity wine from rel­a­tively young vines, b) many (but not all) old vines have deep root sys­tems, which help pro­tect them against the va­garies of each sea­son, mean­ing they of­ten take tough years in their stride more than, say, a young vine­yard might, c) vines don’t live for­ever, and while the best vines on the best sites are nursed for as long as pos­si­ble, even­tu­ally they’ll need to be re­placed, d) there’s a ro­mance and rar­ity to old vines, passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion or owner to owner that can­not be dis­counted, and e) old vines don’t nec­es­sar­ily pro­duce ‘richer’ wines, but their grapes do tend to develop a more unique or a par­tic­u­larly iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ter.

Q.I re­cently read about the con­cen­trates, colour sta­bilis­ers and flavour agents avail­able to wine­mak­ers, and it made me think about the won­der­ful world of wine – some­thing I al­ways took to be rel­a­tively nat­u­ral. Do cur­rent la­belling laws give con­sumers all the in­for­ma­tion they need? Can peo­ple make in­formed de­ci­sions about whether they’re buy­ing a great wine from a great vine­yard or some­thing con­cocted be­tween vine­yard and lab? Is this some­thing used in most ma­jor re­gions or is it usu­ally for lesser wines?

Tom Eng­land

A.‘Need’ is a dif­fi­cult word to pin down but ‘want’ can be eas­ier. I’d imag­ine most wine drinkers are happy with the sta­tus quo, but an in­creas­ing num­ber of wine en­thu­si­asts would love to know ex­actly what they’re putting in their mouths, and for these lat­ter folks the cur­rent la­belling laws aren’t ad­e­quate. A small per­cent­age of wine­mak­ers would wel­come greater trans­parency with open arms, but there would be enor­mous push-back from the vast bulk of the wine­mak­ing com­mu­nity to any ma­jor change to the ex­ist­ing rules. I has­ten to add there’s noth­ing right or wrong about the var­i­ous le­gal ad­di­tives, and that all of them are sim­ply used in an at­tempt to make each wine taste, look, feel and last bet­ter. In­deed, gen­eral wine qual­ity would drop dra­mat­i­cally if var­i­ous ad­di­tives were banned, es­pe­cially ini­tially. All the var­i­ous ad­di­tives and tech­niques are used through­out the wine­mak­ing world, big pro­duc­ers and small, Old World and New, for low-priced wine and high. When you think of it, even the ba­sics of wine­mak­ing (yeast, oak) could be seen as ad­di­tives, and vine­yards them­selves are usu­ally not nat­u­ral or na­tive, so where each wine drinker draws the line of ac­cep­tance is a per­sonal thing. But, of course, many pro­duc­ers keep ad­di­tives to an ab­so­lute min­i­mum and try their best each year to pro­duce not only the best wine they can, but also those that ex­press their site and the lands they grow on as au­then­ti­cally and acous­ti­cally as pos­si­ble.

Q.I have been in­ter­ested in wine now for around eight years and have cre­ated my own cel­lar. I am now in the process of con­tin­u­ing my wine ex­plo­ration by tast­ing my older wines. While read­ing on­line, I no­tice that peo­ple give dif­fer­ent times in terms of how long to de­cant wine. How long should you de­cant a wine and how do you know when a de­canted wine is ready to drink?

Si­mon Hirschi

A.It’s a per­sonal thing, hence the vary­ing an­swers and sug­ges­tions. I of­ten de­cant young chardon­nay, for in­stance, even if only briefly, though many drinkers wouldn’t feel the need.

There are no hard and fast rules, and the best way to learn and de­ter­mine the right course is to taste along the way. If a wine seems brood­ing and closed when you first open it, pour it into a de­canter and taste it at half-hour in­ter­vals.

You’ll be the best judge and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the wine as it un­folds is part of the joy, process and fas­ci­na­tion of wine. In gen­eral, deep­er­flavoured and/or more tan­nic wines will take longer to coax for­ward, while lighter, more sup­ple wines may not need to be de­canted at all. Older wines – par­tic­u­larly if they’re very old – are of­ten rel­a­tively frag­ile and only need to be de­canted as a way to sep­a­rate them from sed­i­ment; don’t de­cant them for too long or you might miss the mo­ment. And that’s a nice segue to the ul­ti­mate ad­vice – if you’re go­ing to err, err on the side of shorter de­cant­ing time rather than longer. It’s al­ways bet­ter to be too early to the bus stop than too late.

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