James Halliday debates the longevity of wine
James Halliday weighs in on the longevity of white (and red) wines.
IT SEEMS A STATEMENT of the bleeding obvious to say that red wines have a longer life span than white wines, until you realise there’s an elephant in the room. The perfection of glass bottles strong enough to withstand the perils of transport at the end of the 18th century and the adoption of one-piece corks that could be inserted without smashing the bottle were developments of massive importance to the wine industry as it was then. Five-hundred years would pass before the Stelvin screwcap patent was acquired by ACI (Australian Consolidated Industries) and trials began with Australian wineries. Much nervous energy was spent in discussions about adjusting fill levels, SO2 and DO (dissolved oxygen). Jeffrey Grosset encouraged all the Clare Valley riesling makers to bottle their 2000 vintage under screwcap and became the sounding board for all and sundry wanting to know how he prepared the wine for bottling. He gave the same answer to every single enquirer: “There are no special preparations for the wine nor any different procedures in the mechanics of bottling.”
Moreover, there have been some improvements, notably offering different (micro) amounts of oxygen passing through the wad (or seal in the screwcap), thus allowing the winemaker to adjust the rate of development of the wine. ‘Making wine in the bottle’, became the battle cry. The other is the Lux screwcap, which has an inbuilt cage that hides the ribs.
So why has the role of the screwcap been vital for white wines rather than red? Tannins in grapes are predominantly in the skins and seeds of grapes. Fermentation of red wines liberates and transforms the must, and normally does at temperatures two to three times higher than white wines. Equally importantly, white wine ferments exclude skins, seeds and stems, resulting in wines with much lower tannins, which are bulwarks against oxidation. Some heavy-duty biochemistry comes into play here, with acid and pH levels impacting. The problems that very expensive (French) White Burgundies began to experience in 1993 with random (or sporadic) oxidation might have never come about had the vignerons condescended to employ screwcaps.
Turning to the years of transition in Australia following the first use of screwcaps, white wine makers staging vertical tastings became aware of the massive difference at the breakpoint as the cork-finished wines gave way to screwcaps. I was at a major tasting of 28 back vintages of cork-finished rieslings in April 1997, attended by (the recently passed)
John Vickery; my tasting notes are included in the third edition of my Classic Wines of Australia and New Zealand.
In the introduction to the chapter on Leo Buring (1963 to 1997) I wrote, “The 1997 tasting played a pivotal role in the Stelvin screwcap renaissance.” At the tasting, Vickery was outspoken in his criticism of the number of wines ruined by corks, and the sheer lottery of wines that he had made and knew to be great falling prey to the cork, others a joy to drink.
Today it is increasingly common to taste rieslings, semillons or marsannes released by their makers when five to seven or more years old. They are joined at the hip, their green-gold colour seemingly lit from within by a hidden light source.
The bouquet has developed a toasty/nutty component, and doesn’t change chemically with age; it’s just the flavours gaining complexity and depth. I am able to say without qualification that these changes continue well past the fiveto-seven-year window; the rate of change slows down, but the wines don’t decline to the point where you drink red wines for their history rather than pleasure.
Cork-finished red wines are sensitive to storage conditions, and prone to physical failure after 10 years. At one extreme the cork is glued to the glass, a nightmare for sommeliers and very frustrating for the private consumer. At the other extreme is the development of ullage and concomitant oxidation. Neither issue bedevils screwcaps. In the Melbourne Cup, it’s the
15- to 40-year time span of the cellaring gamble; bitter defeat when the cork slides back into the bottle, the wine a nasty smear on the floor of the cellar. And note, I haven't mentioned TCA (trichloranisole), the silent assassin. ●