There has always been some controversy over the ageing of wine, and it would appear to fall into two categories, cheaper wine that benefits not at all from being aged and in some cases suffers from it at quite short notice, and the perceived notion that all ‘good’ wines benefit from at least some bottle age.
Cheaper wine is the easiest to deal with, the vast majority of cheaper wines, cheaper being a relative term, are made to be drunk upon purchase, many can be kept for quite long periods without any adverse effects but it is a very small percentage that will change other than deteriorate, as always with these broad brush assertions there are those rare exceptions but we can dispense with those in the overall scheme of things, indeed 95% of all wine produced is made ready to drink from purchase.
When it comes to more expensive wines that are given drinking windows far into the future is where the fun begins, improvement in wine from ageing is not a given, it is an aspiration, wine evolves , the wine in real terms is the finished article the moment the winery bottles it, what happens after that is to a large extent in the hands of nature and how the parts of wine blend with age into one another, there are no guarantees that the wine will follow the path of ageing in the way the vigneron has suggested hence the multiple tastings over time having quite different results over that period.
Some wines, and this is where I have a little knowledge over a long period, are as in Riesling especially age and evolve very well mainly because the sugar residuals act like an anti ageing agent, wish I could get some of that, and do indeed evolve over a very long period.
But even with these many are just as delicious in those early periods as they are after long ageing, it is in the style a drinker likes that the difference comes into effect.
You often get on forums discussing ‘how long should keep Riesling before drinking’ a sort of arbitary time you keep the various types of Riesling before opening, it is often suggested that 5 – 10 yrs for Kabinett, 10 – 15 for Spatlese and 20+ for Auslese, but the reality and my though limited in real terms experience is much can be taken with a pinch of salt, as with photography blogs as an example the forums have been taken over by the gear geeks to whom nothing is ever good enough and with them you wonder do they ever take any photographs as their entire time is taken up discussing if they have enough pixels in their camera.
Wine on many blogs, not all thankfully is discussed in a similar manner and to the wine geeks these years of ageing are sacrosanct.
So where does that leave Riesling as I know it, well as all Riesling keeps ! We can generally be assured even a lowly one will not be affected if kept for a few years, Kabinett wines I have drunk well over ten years in age with no deterioration but also virtually no change other than a bit of colour darkening, I have for example a 12 case of Schloss Lieser Brauneberger Juffer 2010 purchased from the winery that has drunk from the day I got it home to now with no change at all that is discernable, still as fresh as the day the first bottle was opened and it will go a bit more yet, but it has not improved.
My experience with Spatlese and Auslese is different not because they are not drinkable when received or purchased, all have been and if it were not for the infanticide brigade I would be happy with that, but these wines do evolve, and this again is the area personal subjections kick in, the oldest wine that I have drunk was from my ‘71s the last Auslese was around 26/27 years old after the vintage and had turned into a dark golden almost syrup like consistency, it was wonderful, but others with similar time spans in ageing had not evolved the same way, through winemaking styles storage over long periods, not a factor with mine, but a factor, dodgy corks, there were a lot in that period and so on, many of those I preferred at a much earlier age, the Spatleses in particular, what we have is a multitude of factors that effect wines ageing process and the end product.
Once again Riesling as with Sauternes is a rather different animal because of the residual sugar and given reasonable time scales with most the fruit is not lost, with many other wines the fruit starts to disappear with and with all wines with the usual exceptional caveats there comes a tipping point when it is all downhill, Port wasn’t fortified for no reason but still wines don’t have that luxury of fortification to keep them going.
The only slight deviation to my comments on Riesling is that some Auslese shut down after a couple years for a period that can only be guessed at, and the only time you will know if it has shut down or opened up again is by opening a bottle, no guide or expert opinion can help you there, it would only be a guess and again the few never come round, that is the nature of ageing wines whatever they are.
So where do the new dry Rieslings fit in with all this, it is still to early to say for the majority and my tasting of them for that reason is limited so far, the only aged one I have drunk , the one mentioned in my wines of the year, 1998 Koehler-Ruprecht Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Auslese trocken “R” now that was sensational, but only having one bottle means I have no way of knowing what It would have been like at an earlier time, so any comment would be pure guesswork.
On the face of it the reduction in sugars means the life is more limited and that should be almost certainly the case but there has not been enough time for a definitve answer to that as most have come on stream relatively recently. And the bulk of the earlier trockens were just poor wines so nothing would be learnt from them, in fact it was only in 2002 when the GG designation came into being that the early bottling was ditched for late bottling and much longer time spent on the lees, now up to twelve months with the better producers that ageing became worthwhile with these wines, they are now drinkable throughout their life span.
Many of the dryer Rieslings have excess acidity when young and need some time for that mellow so some ageing is required anyway.
So where does that leave Riesling in general terms re ageing, we all know that the higher sugar levels of Auslese and above can produce wonderful long lived wines, many of which will evolve into something special, Spatlese is more circumspect though it to can last with no ill effects for years but not necessarily improve and Kabinett has the wonderful ability to hold that initial freshness over a decent period of time but will probably stay much the same, and all of this more so in the top echelons do still depend on having the fruit in the first place so good vintages are essential, many even Auslese can be rather flat and tasteless with time from poor years and the petrol effect is much more prominent in those years which is why when I was asked some time back about the petrol taste I replied I had not come across it much, as for in the past when vintages were much more unreliable I only purchased in good years, if you look back at vintage charts for Germany you only got around three years in ten that were very good, many years were awful, that with climate change has altered dramatically and the incidence of really bad years coupled with the increase in vineyard management has meant the bad years are now in the minority, yet with such riches why buy mediocre vintages anyway.
For those with the stomach to read a really geeky paper this one lays out the current thoughts and facts on TDN or the petrol like taste and smell that can arise in Rieslings…
in a nutshell warmer climes have more effect in producing this effect and the use of screw caps is also a factor, but it is worth a read even if to dispel the many myths on the petrol factor in Riesling.
A couple of quotes from winemakers on Riesling……
“Rieslings are generally considered best consumed soon after purchase while their fresh fruity characteristics, and lively acidity are at optimum levels. However, Rieslings can be cellared for a number of years; ageing can make them very complex and interesting. But, this is quite variable depending upon the winemaker, vineyard location, vineyard practices and the vintage year. “
and on the use of screw caps and the perceived notion that bottles with screw caps do not age……
‘The success of this push is clear: in 2016, 98% of white wines in Australia and New Zealand were sealed with screw caps. Grosset led a group of 13 Clare Valley winemakers who banded together to import screw caps from France to bottle their entire 2000 vintage Rieslings. ‘This has been the most significant contribution to wine quality in recent times, certainly at least half a century,” says Grosset. ‘It has made the ageing of all wines more reliable, not just Riesling, so at least now, if the wine is not very good it’s most unlikely to be due to the closure.’
And from Ernie Loosen
“However, it’s important to understand that a matured Riesling will not taste at all like a young wine. As they age, Rieslings lose that bright primary fruit of their youth. This starts to happen within two to three years after bottling. Then there can be a muted period of six to 10 years where the wines are pleasant, but not as expressive as they will be when fully matured (a similar development is common with fine Pinot Noirs, especially from Burgundy). What they gain after this, however, is greater depth and complexity. They become drier to the taste, and they develop a stronger, more earthy expression of their inherent minerality. “
Note they ’can’ shut down, not they will.
There is another type of Riesling that falls between the sweet and dry wines, the semi dry, unfortunately for the consumer the German wine labelling doesn’t exactly help in telling you which are semi dry, many of the older estates, such as Maximin Grunhauser have a long list of wine styles often using descriptions that to an outsider are just very confusing, yes I know what they mean, but is it desirable to further complicate an already puzzling system of description, feinherb, superior, monopole have all been added to the already long list of descriptions, despite the ‘70s decision to simplify labelling many estates have made it worse, yet semi dry does not appear anywhere on a German label I have seen which is to put it bluntly stupid.
None the less this category has the attributes of both the dry and sweet styles and ageing wise should be on par with the likes of Chablis etc, but the ones I have drunk were good to go from the off, I wouldn’t bother with any prolonged ageing at all.
What are we left with, the fact that the sweet wines and in particular Auslese will age given all the caveats above into something very special but are still very drinkable at an early age, it is a matter of taste. The icewines, BAs and TBAs will given the same criteria go on forever and just keep evolving, but this is a very expensive and rare category and for many estates a huge expense and effort in labour to produce hence the very high prices .
For those who want to age Riesling then buy good and buy when you are young, for those who have no desire to wait decades to find if their purchase has turned into something marvellous or not there are many earlier vintages for sale from the likes of Justerini & Brookes and Howard Ripley, plus many estates release older vintages from time to time, always worth looking out for.
Those of you who want to buy say Auslese to lay down for the future and are worried about the cost and the reliability of the winemakers are lucky, Germany has some of the best value top end producers in the world of wine, for value and quality even at Goldkapsel level Auslese as well the standard product, Fritz Haag, Schloss Lieser, Peter Lauer, Willi Schaefer are all ultra reliable and easily available here at comparatively little cost, even the ever reliable JJ Prum and again the rejuvenated Maximin Grunhaus is not that expensive for their Auslese you really can’t go wrong for starting a cellar in ageing Riesling with these.