Age and top South American reds

Is old wine better than young wine?

It’s a common question. And the answer is, as ever, a qualified one: it depends.

Largely, it depends on your preferences. Which do you prefer? The freshness and firmness of youth? Or the smoothness and so-called secondary or tertiary characters that come with age like tobacco, dried fruit, honey etc?

Just as importantly, some wines age better than others. Most wine these days is made to be drunk young and doesn’t benefit from ageing. In the past, due to poor vineyard or winemaking techniques, some wines positively needed age in order to soften and become drinkable. These days, this is rare – even age-worthy wines tend to be made so they’re approachable younger than they used to be. Options both ways.

This question can also be region-specific too, though. The article below is a tasting I did with David Williams and Jamie Goode for The World of Fine Wine magazine. In it, we tasted young and older versions of some of South America’s top red wines.

So the obvious question is: are old South American reds better than young ones?

The conclusion was equivocal. We didn’t all agree between us and it tended to depend on individual wines, vintages and producers. There was a broad range of these as well as origins, grape varieties, age gaps between the wines and even bottle formats. Overall, it was a small sample size so hard to draw far-reaching conclusions.

Personally, though, I found much to admire in the older wines. (I preferred the older wine to the younger in 10 of my 17 pairs.) I’ve been lucky enough to try a fair few older South American reds in my time and often the older wines have lower alcohol, more inherent balance and tension, less over-ripeness and lusciousness in style. This means they are better suited to age.

Part of this is to do with how South America’s wine scene has evolved over the last decades. The middle of the 20th century was a decent time for the region’s wines. After Prohibition and the great depression, things had more or less normalized. But then came the advent of modern winemaking technology from the 1970s onwards, and then the trend for blockbuster styles majoring on ripeness and sweetness from the late 1990s. This was not a good time for South American wine, with producers making increasingly absurd and undrinkable wines with monumental levels of alcohol, extraction and oak.

Most of South America’s best producers are now rowing back from the excesses of the noughties to rediscover the elegance and drinkability of their heritage – a trend that started around 2010. This is good news. It can also gives another angle in terms of interpreting a tasting like this. Which stylistic era did the wines – either older or younger – belong to?

Inevitably, the best wines – whether old or young – majored on harmony, elegance and intensity. This depended just as much on the producer as anything else. The worst tended to be those that belonged to the blockbuster brotherhood – too big, too brash, too bland – especially the older versions, which never age well.

In short, though, it was great to see wines of complexity in this tasting which either had benefitted from age or would benefit from further age.

Top South American reds, in summary, can and do benefit from age. Just make sure you choose the right ones to make fine old bones.

[The tasting report ‘South American Reds – A coming-of-age story’ appears in The World of Fine Wine magazine Issue 61, 2018]

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