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On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: Mature Red – A New View

Most of the bottles of red wine in my subterranean grotto are pretty old, which many people assume means that I age every wine I buy.

I have even acquired a nickname — KSRO radio show host Steve Jaxon suggests my middle name should be “Layitdown.” And I admit that I love properly stored older red wines —- and many older whites.

But I also evaluate dozens of very young wines — soon after they’ve been sent to market. Most such wines will be consumed within hours or days of their purchase, so I seek wines that deliver something early.

Since patience isn’t an American virtue, and cellar-aging of wine isn’t a widely practiced sport in this country, I usually don’t write glowingly of wines I find that require lots of aging.

But beyond all the young wines that I evaluate and the ancient ones that I love, there is a third category of wine: middle-aged. I rarely pay enough attention to this third kind of wine. Yet those wines that are not really young or old can be a delight.

Recently I found a 2009 Italian Barbera that I had misplaced. It probably could have improved for another few years, but I pulled the cork and found it agreeable and tasty.

Many very young wines seem to me to be too immature and backward. It’s like having a “conversation” with a 2-year-old. Some sounds are coming out, but it’s hard to decipher them.

Of course, many young wines deliver enjoyment, but I always consider it sad when a wine with aging potential is sacrificed in its youth. And to be sure, very old red wines can be short of overt fruit.

But the best usually replace youthful fruit by offering depth, complexity, and a satiny succulence. It’s a hard concept to discuss in print. Tasting is always best! But wine lovers willingly accept diminished fruit as long as the secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors are in abundance.

There is clearly a risk of holding onto wines that we believe could last 25 or 30 years: they may go over the hill and fail to deliver what we expected.

I once believed, for example, that great Chianti Classico Riservas would be excellent at about 30 years of age. But we learned otherwise. A decade ago, we noted that the 1985 Chiantis we had aged were tasting a little tired.

Most would have been better consumed at 25. (Fortunately, we have only a few 1985s left.)

Some wines that are well past their release dates, but not yet mature, have one great benefit at middle-age — they have already shed the awkwardness of adolescence and have begun to show some maturity. Sort of like that 2-year-old who now is 15 and has become eloquent.

Middle age is a wonderful time for many wines to show glimmers of what they will be. Some grape varieties do this mid-life expansion far better than others.

Cooler climate Merlots come to mind. Merlot is one of the finest grapes for displaying fascinating characteristics with just a few years in the bottle.

Far too many people drink them too young before the wines have a chance to fragment into its component parts, with fruit, dried herbs, with hints of forest, dried fruit, and other nuances.

(There is an unfortunate story about how the author of the book that led to the movie "Sideways" misunderstood a conversation I had with him while he was still researching the novel. And his diatribe against that grape was unwarranted.)

I have a few 30-year-old examples of Merlot. One of the best is a wine from Washington that I purchased in 1990, from the 1986 harvest. I last tasted it about 2005. It was fabulous.

One of the current passions of many wine lovers over the last several years has been upscale versions of Pinot Noir. Because of the kind of grape that it is (much lighter in overall weight than most others), some are fragile and don’t live very long. In most cases, Pinot Noir is best at 6 to 10 years of age.

Barolo is typically one of the longest-lived of red wines. The best Barolos are aged 4 to 5 years before bottling and then two more years before they are released.

But there’s no need to wait forever. Just a few more years for a high-caliber Barolo and then a decanting helps to make them more approachable.

Domestic Zinfandels with moderate alcohols and good acid levels also can be enjoyed with some age, and some of the best I’ve tasted were brilliant at about age 8. After that, a few collapsed, still others were so astounding we couldn’t believe what I was tasting.

(About 1995, a good friend opened a red wine and asked what we thought it was. I guessed it to be a high-caliber Bordeaux. Another wine lover was thought it was an older Cabernet. It turned out to be a 1971 Sonoma County Zinfandel.)

Petite Sirah is one of my favorite varieties for putting in the cellar. Rarely have I had one at 30 or 40 years old and found it to be too tired to drink.

And yet when paired with the right foods, I adore Petite Sirahs at 6 or 7 years of age.

Cabernet is a grape that rarely displays much at age 6 or 8. Ten years is better. Some may be enjoyed young, but in some cases it’s cradle-robbing. I prefer good Cabs at age 10 to 12, as long as the storage conditions were excellent.

More on aging reds:

Many wines go through a “down” period in their evolution. Frequently that occurs at about 5 to 6 years of age, which makes consuming some Pinot Noirs that much trickier. But if you wait too long, it could be over the hill before you know it.

However, if you consume it within 2 to 3 years of its vintage date, you may be getting it while it is still too young to enjoy.

Those who believe in drinking red wine very young might best be served to pull the cork and immediately decant the wine. Splashing a young red wine helps to make it more approachable.

It doesn’t do much to mimic aging, but it expands the wine enough to see some secondary elements.

Wine of the Week

2019 Chelsea Goldschmidt Merlot, Dry Creek Valley, Salmon’s Leap Vineyard ($22) — Striking black cherry and fresh plum fruit that masks seamless barrel aging so the wine opens, with aeration, to display excellent varietal notes without the rugged tannins found in longer-lived Cabernet Sauvignons. It will be best in 6-8 more years. Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa has it for $16.99.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., where he publishes Vintage Experiences, a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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