Friday, April 4, 2014

Burgundy, Bottle Aging, and Tertiary Aromas

I’ve pointed out before that many of us keep our wine for too long, and that most wines don’t improve after the first few years in the bottle.  Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, and one of them is Burgundy. This week I attended a tasting, hosted by the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB), of older vintages of Burgundy from 1996 to 2006.  These wines were amazingly fresh and fruity for their age.  Some of them were still improving and could last another several years (or 10). 

Let’s briefly review what happens when wine ages:
  1. The molecules of acid and alcohol bind together in new and exciting ways, creating additional, more complex flavor and aroma compounds. (more on that here)
  2. Tannins soften and mellow (and eventually begin to precipitate out of the wine, creating sediment).
  3. Fruit aromas change from fresh to dried, and eventually fade, while the non-fruit aromas (like earthiness or minerality) become more prominent.
In tasting notes, you sometimes see wine aromas described as primary, secondary, or tertiary.  This has to do with #3 above.  Primary aromas come from the fruit itself.  Secondary aromas come from the winemaking process (oak aging, malolactic fermentation, aging on the lees, etc.).  Tertiary aromas come from bottle aging.  In older wines, the primary aromas move to the back seat, and the secondary and tertiary aromas start driving.  For instance, a young Burgundy that is primarily fruity with a hint of earth and sweet spice could potentially age into an amazing Burgundy like the one I tasted a few weeks ago that smelled like incense – seriously, it smelled just like church on Easter.  The fruit character was still there, but muted, and the sweet spice aromas had evolved into an intoxicating incense bouquet.  (This kind of transformation won’t happen every time – just with the best wines under the right conditions – and it will depend on what the original aromas were.)

Back to Burgundy...  Both red and white Burgundies are capable of aging well, as long as they are stored properly (in a cool, dark place, not too dry, and not bumped around too much).  Burgundy's wine regions – also called appellations, AOCs, or AOPs – are divided into a hierarchy.  Grand cru is the top, then premiere, then village, then regional.  Here's a handy list of all the appellations from the BIVB website, which indicates which level in the hierarchy each appellation holds.  For long-term aging (10+ years), focus on appellations at the village level or above.  The Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune sub-regions are particularly known for good quality and ageability.  These can be expensive, so if you have less money to spend, a cheaper bottle can still age, just maybe not as long.  Burgundy is one of the increasingly rare regions where the wines are built to age.

I plan to create my own cheat sheet for Burgundy at some point, but for now, check out the one from Wine Folly below.  All those appellation names are what you will look for on the bottles!  (click to enlarge)

You may also want to read:
A little chemistry explains a lot
Is your wine over the hill?
French Wine Cheat Sheet
Chardonnay Cheat Sheet
Pinot Noir Cheat Sheet

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