The time to drink is now!

To expect all expensive wines to be age-worthy is a fallacy. In fact, the most sought-after bottles of the present are much less likely to age well than those of decades past.


Oftentimes, when we've spent more than we typically would on wine, or when someone gives us a very special bottle as a gift, we're tempted to put it down to age rather than drink it right away. Whether we're conscientiously storing it in a cellar or simply allowing it to collect dust for a few years while waiting for the "right moment" to open it, we're assuming it will taste better tomorrow than it does today.

Big mistake.

To expect all expensive wines to be age-worthy is a fallacy. In fact, the most sought-after bottles of the present are much less likely to age well than those of decades past.

I recently tasted five fine 1970 Bordeaux over the course of a weekend (a thousand thanks to my dad, who shares treats from his cellar whenever I come home for a visit). At nearly 40 years of age, these wines still smelled and tasted lively, fruity and spicy.

But as I examined them more closely, it struck me that they were nothing like the wines we are today told are the epitome of excellence. Consider these fundamental differences:

Alcohol: Unlike today's cult wines, which typically start at 14 percent alcohol by volume and go up from there, yesterday's cult wines ranged in alcohol from 11.5 to 12.5 percent (even Bordeaux, composed of heavy-duty grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc). This is key, because balancing factors such as fruit, tannins and acidity can fade over time. The mellowing of these characteristics will make the alcohol in today's blockbuster wines seem disproportionately strong tomorrow.

Acidity: Contemporary wines tend to be soft around the edges. But wines able to stand the test of time must be briskly acidic. That means they should feel more like lemonade than milk on your tongue, and they should leave you with a mouthwatering sensation after you've taken a sip. Over time, the acid should smooth out and become less noticeable, while continuing to leave your palate feeling clean rather than fuzzy at the end of the evening.

Fruit: The current fashion for harvesting overripe fruit makes for appealing portlike beverages with sweet, raisin-y aromas and flavors. There's nothing wrong with this style of wine now, but don't put your money on it lasting more than a decade. If longevity is what you're after, seek out wines made from grapes harvested at just-ripeness, which translate into flavors that are crisp and fresh rather than sweet and rich.

Tannins: People often explain away the brutal tannins (that cotton-ball sensation on your tongue) on black-tinted cult wines. "Oh, those will soften with age," they say. But will they? In my experience, the tannins in great old wines are still noticeable, but they're so refined as to be enjoyable, hitting the tongue like tiny pinpricks. And they're evenly balanced with fruit, alcohol and acidity. I have a hunch that today's huge, overpowering tannins will continue to overpower tomorrow's aged wines.

Oak: Oak is a matter of taste. It's also expensive. And it does age well: In wines that haven't held up over the years, oak is sometimes the only flavor that remains. Problem is, today's wine that's high in alcohol, low in acidity, loaded with baked-fruit flavor and slathered with oak might, in a couple of decades, just taste like alcohol and expensive oak -- and not much else. And if that's what you want, why not just buy a bottle of bourbon?

Now, if you love a big, oaky, ripe red wine, don't despair after reading this (even though I can tell you that I've tasted wines like this after just a decade of age and have been very disappointed).

Instead, celebrate. Because the next time someone gives you a bottle of cult cab, or you splurge on that prestige pinot noir, you shouldn't hesitate. You should open and enjoy.