February 15, 2012

Better With Age

15 February 2012 | by Andrea Frost

The wine was presented at dinner with all the ceremony as if it were a new child. Its arrival was announced to guests while it was carried in two hands as though its preciousness were fragile enough to crush. On the table it was centred and adored and as I admired my hosts’ generosity and offering of a very old wine, I got to thinking how readily we accept ageing as a notion of superiority in wine yet not of ourselves.

Few would disagree we live in a youth-obsessed society. The virtues of remaining forever young are sprawled over billboards and flaunted in TV ads, messaged in movies and sprinkled through magazines. If we’re not having it shoved through the windows to our souls we’re being promised it in tubes and creams, lasers and lipos, plugs and tucks.

It’s not just appearing young we are fixated on; the pressure to succeed is being felt younger and younger. Career selection starts at an age when we are yet to know ourselves, least of all what area of the world we wish to specialise in. As Gloria Steinhem said recently, “Our generation thought life was over when we were 30, your generation thinks you have to be successful by then.”

Frankly, I am not sure about this obsession with youth. I never know what I would say to a younger version of me – there seems so much to address – and I can’t think of anything I would rather be less than a younger version of myself again.

As they promised all those years ago, life does get more complex with age but it also gets better. There is so much nonsense that is easy to ignore, more things to believe in, passions to stand for and a deeper satisfaction to be had. Only possible, of course, with experience and age.

As I sat with my friends and looked lovingly at this very old wine, I couldn’t help but wonder if we could learn a thing or two about ageing in life from ageing in wine.

Take the vines. It is almost universally accepted that older vines make better wines. Young vines have vigour and brightness on their side, but it is the older vines that are the most sought after to make the best wines. As vines age, they produce a delightful complexity and intensity in their fruit. How lovely to think that extra years on vines are sought after and nurtured, celebrated and rewarded.

It’s even better news for vines from the best vineyards. Not until some vines are ten years old is their fruit deemed mature enough to go into some Grand Cru wines. Winemakers acknowledge that the younger vines lack a certain … something.

We also tolerate the slowing affects of age in vines more than we do in ourselves. Late last year I was in Alsace, wandering the vineyards of Zind Humbrecht, the exquisite domaine in Turckheim on the charming Alsatian wine route. We took a turn over the hill to one very old vineyard. As we stood amongst its rows, I noted how lovingly the 90-year-old vineyard was spoken of. High on the hill, overlooking the medieval towns on the valley floor, backed by the Vosges mountain range and with the Black Forest of Germany in the distance, the canopy was thinning on top and the trunk thickened and twisted at the base, both telltale signs of older vines. But here, as with many old vines, these gnarled old trunks were considered a thing of beauty. The vines still produced fruit of exquisite quality, it’s just that there was less of it and it took a little longer to produce.

Not only can we learn a thing or two about ageing from viticulture, but also from the time allowed for character to express itself. It is expected that 15-20 vintages will pass before a vineyard will start to show its magic and some winegrowers claim regional expertise only because of hundreds of years of inherited knowledge. Can you imagine being allowed 40, 50 or 60 years to hit your straps? They say late bloomers are rare not because talent in older people is rare but because talents that might develop when we’re older often miss the chance to shine. They lie buried beneath an earlier chosen career, an ill-conceived belief of who we are or the lack of freedom to explore. Many, they say, die with the music still in them.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of our respect for the ageing process is in the cellaring of the wine itself. How much reverence we have for a cellar full of ageing wine, and what efforts we make to enable this to happen. Cultivated is a very particular set of environmental conditions to help the wines age – cellars must be dark and still, with the right humidity, a constant and perfect temperature, away from excessive light or constant vibration. Unlike what we’re fed in today’s media channels, it is not about trying to hold onto wines youthful qualities, but to develop and celebrate its aged ones. The end game here is age: to develop, to change, to become more complex.

As I raised my glass and saluted the very old wine, I realised that in many respects we get it right with our attitudes to wine. It’s not about trying to be what we once were, but becoming what we can be.