CAMPBELL MATT IN SON ANSWERS YOUR PRESSING WINE QUESTIONS
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’?
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?
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?
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.