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Can California Wines Be Aged?

by David on February 13, 2008

Question from Jessica: I recently was told by a French wine connoisseur that he would not open a California wine bottle for 10 years +/- as he does with most of his French wines. When I purchased the wine, they told me that California wines are to be opened young. Can you please tell me how to know when to open a wine, specifically a California wine? Thank you.

Reply: Hi, Jessica! Thanks for writing! This seems to be our French vs. California month (see previous post)!

I wish there was a simple answer to your question, but there isn’t. I’ll start by giving you the big picture. I’m going to assume we’re speaking mainly about red wines although there are whites that age well, too.

First, the vast majority of wines are meant for early consumption no matter where they come from. For long-term aging, we’re talking about fine wine.

Second, there can be a difference in longevity between the great wines of California and Europe because of climatic differences. In most of the famous European wine-producing regions the climate errs on the cold side. Cool-climate wines tend to be higher in acid than warm-climate wines and acid is an excellent natural preservative (another natural preservative common to red wine is tannin, which comes from the grape skins). High-acid wines can be hard to drink when they’re young, but they stay lively in the bottle longer.

Most of California leans toward the warm end of the scale, so the wines are often lower in acidity. This usually makes them easy to drink when they’re young, but they may show signs of old age sooner than their cool-climate counterparts.

That’s the big picture, but exceptions abound. If you’ve heard of the “Judgement of Paris” (they’re making two movies about it!), you might be interested to know that a 30th anniversary rematch was held in 2006 pitting approximately 30-year-old wines from California (Bordeaux-types) against great French Bordeaux wines of the same age. The California wines took the top-five ranks.

Longevity can also depend on the grape variety that makes the wine and the specific region and its climate/terrain within the country or state. The variety is stated on the label for most California wines, where French wine is usually named for the region and the varieties used for commercial winemaking in the region are regulated by local authorities. For instance, Beaujolais wines, made of the Gamay grape, aren’t generally intended for long-term aging the way a fine Bordeaux (Cabernet/Merlot) or Burgundy (Pinot Noir) are. Granted, Beaujolais isn’t considered to be in the same league with fine Burgundy or Bordeaux. That’s another reason not to make general assumptions about countries and their wines. A country such as France makes some of the very finest wines in the world and also very ordinary, every-day wines and everything in between – just like California!

So, I’m not trying to dodge your question – I’m trying to suggest that it depends upon the individual wine. Given the big picture, that wine shop didn’t give you such bad advice. Better too young than too old! Please don’t feel shy about asking questions when you buy wine because a good wine shop will have a knowledgeable staff who will be happy to help you.

There’s more detail about aging in this article on our website. I hope this helps! Cheers! Nancy

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