Perfect Timing

Karen MacNeil

Author of “The Wine Bible”

When is a vintage ready?

The question of when to drink a great wine is one of the central conundrums facing any wine lover. Drinking a wine when its most complex, interesting flavors are being fully expressed is clearly preferable to drinking a wine that’s so young it hasn’t really “become itself” yet. On the other hand, many of us fear that if we wait too long, the wine might collapse in old age.

But great wine doesn’t quite work that way. Drinking wine is not like baking a cake. There is no magic moment when the wine is “ready.” Most very good to great red wines evolve and soften progressively. They start out with rather “tight” fruit and, bit by bit, slowly metamorphose into a supple, more complex drink. Where a wine is along this spectrum at any point in time is a matter of conjecture, for wine is a living substance that changes according to its own rhythms. 

This is no reason for disillusionment. In fact, it is just the opposite. The unpredictability of wine makes it all the more compelling and exciting. Never truly knowing what to expect is part of the attraction; it is why wine appeals to the intellect in a way that, say, vodka does not. Best of all, the incontrovertibly inexact nature of readiness is a good excuse for buying more than one bottle of a fine wine, then trying these at several stages to see how the wine is developing. 

 I did just that with Quintessa’s 2006. I liked the wine when it was young, but I had felt there was something “behind the door”—something that was hinted at but hadn’t yet been revealed. The wine is now nine years old—no longer young but, for a structured Napa Valley cabernet, not old either. I love tasting wine at this perfect in-between stage. Here is what I wrote:

“In addition to its impressive structure, the 2006 Quintessa demonstrates delicious counterpoints of flavor. One split-second you taste the rocky, chaparral-like land; then the next, juicy wild berries warmed by the sun. The wine’s signature minerality and sophisticated bitter almond are here, giving the wine distinction. But above all, the texture is sublime—a satiny liquidity that makes you crave another glass.”