Age Before Beauty?

By the time I arrived at my neighborhood wine shop last Saturday, only six of the just-arrived 12 cases of 2002 Abeja cabernet sauvignon remained for sale. A sample sip showed why. Though understated and contained on first taste, the ghost of the wine remained for long minutes after, a carousel of impressions: fragrance, tang, flavor. "It's a crime to drink this wine so young," a clerk said to me. I couldn't help agreeing. A half-hour later. I repeated what he'd said to a friend who knows Abeja's winemaker, John Abbott. "Now that surprises me," he said, "because I distinctly remember John saying he makes his wine to be enjoyed when it comes on the market." Who's right, clerk or winemaker? Both, in a way; despite Orson Welles' famous "We will sell no wine before its time," almost all wine (Paul Masson wine emphatically included) is sold and drunk almost as soon as it's in a bottle. A wine needs several things to be ageable, let alone ageworthy: A strong spine of natural acidity and the right kind of sugars and tannins are most important. But the same components tend to challenge unsophisticated palates, who find such wine "sour" or "raspy." So what's a wine- maker to do? These days, even higher-end wines tend to be drunk young, mainly for economic reasons. Consumers, except wealthy collectors, aren't inclined to delay enjoyment of their vinous capital for decades. Some winemakers swim against the current. Syncline's James Mantone, for example, is producing a wine from 100 percent roussanne grapes. Roussanne is famous in the northern Rhône Valley for its ability to age up to 20 years into a wine of great concentration, complexity, and nobility. Nobody yet has a clue if it can deliver the same result in Alder Ridge Vineyard above the Columbia Gorge, but Mantone is willing to spend a decade or so finding out. Abeja's Abbott, more commercially minded, is trying to steer a middle course. "If I make a wine that puts people off the first time they taste it, they're not going to try it again, no matter how well it ages," he says. "I personally feel that this wine is going to improve a lot over the next five to seven years. But I also think it can be drunk with appreciation right now." There you have it; the decision's right back in your lap. Now or later? Immediate gratification or investment in delay? How about this: one bottle for now and another for 2009? If you can still find a bottle, that is.

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