I've written before about what must be the eternal question for wine lovers: Why is that a wine can sing like Pavarotti one day, and like Bob Dylan on another? (Mind you, the current, croaky-voiced incarnation; I love early Bob.) Or, sometimes morph in the opposite direction?
The question, of course, is rhetorical. Wine isn't a static but living — and hence, changeable — thing. As, naturally, are we. For example, it's been shown that when presented with the identical wine in two glasses, we humans pretty much always pick a favorite.
Or, as happened recently with a customer who happened to taste two different vintages of Benjamin Leroux's Chassagne-Montrachet Abbaye de Morgeot a week apart, on the first go 'round she preferred the crisper, brighter 2013, but on the second the rounder, richer, but still taut 2012. So which was different, the wine, the drinker, or both?
This also helps explain why the suggested drinking windows critics like to write about, or any one of us might consider when laying down wines, are at best educated guesses. Unlike us, wine doesn't age in a track-able, linear way. Wines can be open when young and then shut down for months or years at a time. Or, as is often the case with classic youthful Barolo, so tight and tannic that tasting them is practically an exercise in self-torture.
Then there's the question of how you like your wines?
I know many collectors who prize very old vintages. They'll generously uncork 25-, 30-, 40-years and older bottles; sometimes they are as vibrant and velvet-voiced as Pavarotti in his prime; sometimes they're as dried out and leathery as latter-day Dylan. Once a wine hits that stage, regional and varietal character can be difficult to distinguish. (Of course the life those bottles led, where they came from and how they were stored, is of critical importance. But that's a whole other subject.)
Today, it's more likely to be true that we drink wines too young. Given proper storage, a five to seven year window after the vintage date is probably a nice middle-ground for any wine that will benefit from bottle age (though the most serious, such as grand cru Burgundy, usually benefit from more time than that). Some wines are ready to go when young and should be drunk that way, but even lighter wines can often benefit from an additional one to three years in the bottle.
But then again, there are no rules. It's all about pleasure. As with life itself, practicing patience while accepting that there are going to be some bumps along the road is a smart way to approach wine. The journey, as they say, is just as important as the destination.
photo credits: Pavarotti, New York Times; Dylan, San Jose Mercury News