Winemaker Q&A: Anthony Vietri on Evaluating Wines With Aging Potential

Va La Vineyards in Avondale, PA
Winemaker Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards with wife, Karen

This is an abridged transcript of email conversations I’ve had with Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards on the process of how wines with aging potential will develop. The conversations took place in Fall 2011.

I’m trying to understand the wine aging process – specifically, the chemical reactions taking place to give an aged wine its distinct aromas and flavors, which are often completely different from its younger counterpart. My understanding is that for a wine to age, it has to be exposed to small amounts of oxygen through/ around the cork (or whatever closure). Can you talk a bit about the stages a wine built for aging will go through during its life cycle – and how oxygen interacts with it at the different stages?

Well, the good and bad is that this is stuff without complete answers in hard science; it is alchemy at this stage. I’ll try to give my thoughts, but keep in mind, no matter what anyone tries to tell you, no one knows for sure, and in my opinion, the rules are not universal.

Sure, of course…

This is what I’ve observed. In the bottle, a properly made, non-oxidized wine goes from the primary fermentation and barrel aromas to the whole complex web of aromas we call bottle aromas. A normal scope of how a wine built for aging is as follows:

  1. Newly bottled wine is in bottle shock.
  2. Wine moves from deadening bottle shock to return of primary/ fermentation/ élevage aromas.
  3. Wine begins to be transformed by oxygen and moves from primary aromatics to bottle aromatics and in doing so, passes through a ‘dumb’ stage.
  4. Wine passes from dumb to bottle bouquet.
  5. Wine passes from bottle bouquet to death / total oxidation as the remaining chemical bonds and biological functions begin to fail.

Bottle Shock

So with bottle shock, sulfur dioxide (SO2) is added at bottling because the wine is suddenly exposed to large amounts of oxygen; whereas in barrel, it was mostly in a reductive (low oxygen) state. The SO2 dose retards the oxidation process, so you don’t end up with a totally oxidized wine – BUT this addition deadens the wine’s aromas/flavors initially?

Right, a wine is under low levels of oxygen in élevage – then, suddenly, it is greatly exposed to oxygen at bottling. Then, SO2 is added and the wine goes back to a reductive state as it sits in this tiny bottle.

The wine initially becomes subdued due to the shocking movements, SO2 additions (which, of course, subdue flavors, aromas, and color), and then being placed in a state of very little oxygen.

And how long does SO2 stay in the wine – meaning, how long does bottle shock last?

Speaking very generally, the SO2 at bottling begins dissipating to almost 0 parts free within normally six months to 1.5 years.

Why is there such a large range – 1 year?

Well, the rate depends on a number of factors including the original amount of SO2 in solution, head space height, and whether the head space was gassed with an inert gas and the oxygen removed. The length of the cork and its integrity also play a factor, as well as whether the wine is stored cork up, cork down, or cork on side.

Then you have other things – the air pressure outside the closure, chemical contamination (such as copper, or cork or bottle cleaner) and the phenol content of the wine, etc. So it depends.

The Dumb Phase & Decanting

Without delving too much into the chemistry of the oxidation/aging process, my understanding is that oxygen is introduced into the wine (via the closure) and goes through a series of chemical reactions that eventually involve the wine’s tannins/ anthocyanins/phenols/etc – and this is what creates the complex aromas and flavors of aged wine over time. If that is the case, what is the dumb phase? The wine is out of bottle shock by then, so what is causing the aromas/flavors to be subdued?

I don’t think anyone knows for sure what this dumb phase is. In my opinion, during the aging process, the original aromas of youth are affected by and transformed by chemical processes into the aromas and flavors of bottle age.

However, during this linear journey, the wine does not essentially go directly from aromas of youth to aromas of age….it takes a long time. As the slow chemical changes occur, and bonds are established and broken, the aromas of youth must first dissipate, then become neutral, then begin to climb with the strength of bottle aromatics.

So a wine that is “dumb” has simply been experienced when it is in MID-TRANSFORMATION from primary fruit aromas to bottle aromas. This state normally hits at 1 to 5 years after bottling of a normally extracted red.

Does decanting speed up this process of transitioning from youth to age? In other words, how closely does decanting a wine mimic the aging process and how much differently will a wine taste that has been decanted vs. bottle aged for several more years?

Decanting will help a wine in dumbness, but it won’t give you a sneak peak of what it will taste like after completing bottle aging.

There are chemical reactions that occur over several years of bottle aging cannot be easily mimicked in the short term by decanting. This is especially true with tannins and color change. The larger bonds take years – or decades – to form and precipitate as sediment. That can’t be rushed. The textures and sensations that they cause can’t be mimicked by early air. This is part of that whole equation that goes into the “dumb” periods that can’t be rushed through.

Then what does decanting show you?

Well, a person thoroughly knowledgeable about a specific region or specific winery’s wines – where methods are consistent over many years – can use decanting as a tool to form an opinion of how a particular wine might age, and how it is progressing in that process.

For instance, if a Right Bank is showing brick color, truffles, lots of sediment, and seamless tannins at five years, one might extrapolate that this wine is going to be past its prime in another ten years. However, decanting does not provide a snapshot of how it will actually taste and smell in the future.

But decanting does help a young wine open up and become easier to drink in the short term…

Right, so long decanting is best for newly bottled wines with lots of structure – especially during their inevitable reductive or dumb stages – to attempt to tame the tannins, blow off aromas, and allow the wine to become more plush.

It’s NOT good for old wines because they are just too delicate to stand up to the massive oxygen attack.

OK, as an example – so I understand this – I recently bought and tasted a bottle of 2006 d’Armailhac (made by the Mouton winemaker), which was very austere, with muted flavors/aromas and not so pleasant to drink. However 24 hours later, it had become very elegant, with nice fruit and balance – much like in the style of the 2010. Over time, the wine became more integrated; certain flavors were more pronounced, and it was quite good. Would you consider this in the “dumb” phase?

I would say either the wine was still very concentrated and young, and thus 24 hours decanting helped break down the walls of phenols – or, the wine is just past this stage and is entering the so-called stage of ‘dumbness’.

If the wine has copious tannins and strong color, then it is an indicator that it is still in the latter stages of youth. If the texture is smooth, then it is probably in the early stages of dumbness moving into bottle bouquet.

How can you tell if and when a wine will come out of its dumb phase?

This is, of course, a question for the wine maker, as they can give you insight into how their wines age. The Bordelais are very good at predicting this period, and thus advising the years to skip tasting a particular vintage.

And is it possible to distinguish whether a wine is in a dumb phase or if it’s just not very good?

Well, there is always the possibility, especially in Old World regions, that the wine is coming off as ‘dumb’ — or shall we say, subdued — due to a lack of fruit, and often, low alcohol. In other words, the wine has lost all fruit, but the shell of tannins gives the impression that it is still alive.

Some of these wines (think old time Châteauneuf-du-Pape and medium-priced Bordeaux) are nothing but dry tannins and little else. In such cases, as the French will often point out, these wines are terribly out of balance and will never come around with time.

Which wines are more likely to fall into this camp – high tannins but no fruit?

I still see this affliction too often with some Piemonte Barberas. Color, tannins, and no fruit. They’re just dried husks. In France, this can happen mostly with Cab and sometimes Cab Franc, and Tannat wines. In South Africa, you can sometimes see it with Pinotage, and in Southern Italy, with Aglianico and Negroamaro, etc. These sometimes are, and at all stages seem to be, in a perpetual state of dumbness.

The ONLY way to know for sure is that when encountering these wines, you ask about normal development, and if possible, try to taste an older vintage that supposedly shows the wine beyond the stage of dumbness.

The Role of Microbes in Wine Aging

You’ve mentioned before about the art of making wines with microbes. How do microbes affect the wine’s evolution during aging?

In Old World wines, microbes (and wild yeasts) are used like an art form – like a cheese maker plying his craft. You will find this practice in Burgundy and sometimes, Rhone.

Microbes – which are imparted into wines through the purposeful use of old vats, old barrels, and moldy cellars, etc – can lend great complexities to the wines – of course, depending on your taste. Any winery that brags how old their vessels or barriques are is going to be playing this game.

So you’re not in the camp that thinks microbes are all bad and to be avoided?

Microbes are not just on dirty equipment… they are literally everywhere. They are on every surface. They re-appear from the very moment you clean – including your clothes and hair. Microbes can NOT be eliminated. They can only be controlled.

Now, microbes are both good and bad. It is about balance and control. The trick is to know which are the good ones (i.e. malolactic populations) and which are bad. Then, you have to learn what cultivates or prevents their populations and act accordingly – by creating environments that either promote or hinder their population growth.

And how do winemakers use these microbes to make wine?

Microbes are used to introduce complexities. The dominant populations of microbes in their wines actually become the dominant element of their wines, giving them a character no one else has.

On the other hand, it is a dangerous game because these same microbes in too great quantities can make the wine seem weird at some point, or eventually, actually destroy it. It is a deal with the devil, for sure.

Do the microbes survive bottling, or are they only in older barrels?

Yes – once in bottle, microbes react in a low oxygen environment in many weird and wonderful ways. Hence, wines that exploit a large number of microbes for complexity, tend to be wines that change more dramatically (for better or worse) in the bottle.

The art is in those winemakers who understand this end game, and are able – ten years in advance – to create and prepare their wines to blossom in this state. I don’t even know how to explain how exhilarating, and difficult, a thing this is.

And if they aren’t successful, you end up with a funky wine?

Right. The difficult question here is – will the microbes create something of beauty or of horror. You can really only determine that based on the success of that winery’s ability to do so in the past.

Oxidation of White Burgundies

Since you’ve brought up Burgundy, what are your thoughts on the premature oxidation of White Burgundies in the late 90s, early 2000s?

With all due respects to those who’ve sought to find the culprit, I’d like to offer the following to consider: Until the 90′s, Burgundy often suffered from under-ripe, dilute, and by today’s standards, oxidized grapes that were flavored almost solely by lees, barrels, acid, and sulfides (which were copious and accepted.) Properly made, oxidized wines hit a state where they seem to not age…for decades.

When Burgundy tried to go international, with short vatting, and whole cluster pressing + fining + filtration + settling + racking BEFORE fermentation, they ended up with beautiful, clear wines ready for drinking in one year, and which did not have the phenols nor redox potential for the kind of long term aging that had been traditional. This is how $8 Pinot Grigio is made, and the Burgundians were using the same methods, and wondering what was going on to their wines.

So you don’t think the corks had anything to do with it?

I am just relying on a process of elimination: what has changed in recent years? Well, the quality of corks, contamination-wise, has in fact never been better given the standards and selection methods used now.

The quality of grapes, in growing methods, control of yields, and knowledge of the field, has never been better. Chemical use and potential contamination have actually become less, especially with so many organic and bioD grapes and wines. So, it stands to reason, that something between the grapes coming in the door, and the cork going into the bottle, may very well be the culprit. And the one change in that area is quite substantial: the methods of processing / winemaking.

Do you think adding too little SO2 at bottling is also a factor?

Well, recent low SO2 use in the cellar may be an issue. Low phenol, lowish alcohol, low SO2, and low redox don’t make candidates for aging. In my mind, logic dictates that this is not to be ignored.

Wine Closures: Corks or Screw Caps?

When I was at the 2011 LIWF, I sat through a seminar that discussed studies with several types of closures. All the wines aged differently because different types of closures allow different amounts of oxygen to enter the bottle. What is your opinion on the different types of wine closures?

This topic tends to be too full of dogma for my tastes. To me, it’s pretty cut and dry, so I don’t understand the hullaballoo… but here are my observations.

Screw caps have, since the 1960′s, had the propensity to stop the flow of oxygen, and create a reductive state that cannot dissipate. This has not been solved. We try to play with headspaces, etc. but wines sealed in this way must be essentially subdued into an inert beverage – that is, thoroughly stripped of many elements and dosed with copper to create an inert beverage that will behave under the smothering environment of a screw cap.

So screw caps are for wines made to drink now – without the ability to age?

Screw caps tell you that the winemaker does not want oxygen to interplay with the wine, that they are offering you a ‘finished product’ that is ready to drink — but in theory — to be ready to drink for an extended time.

And corks?

While screw caps are intended to PRESERVE a finished wine, corks are intended to preserve and AGE the wine. In artisanal wines, when one is trying to make something that will slowly be transformed by oxygen into a whole new and beautiful product, we use corks.

You use high-quality corks at Va La, right?

I would love to use screw cap, but can’t get over the issues of how I am to age wine to the end game ….when it does not allow the tool to do so. So, we ended up choosing to go with the best cork we could find on the market. But they are EXPENSIVE!

What about Randall Grahm? I thought he declared the death of corks.

Yes, Randall Graham declared that all his wines would go under cap and declared corks the scourge of the earth….then quietly went back to corks for his best stuff. That’s the kind of BS that dominates this question.

And the other main closures on the market?

Synthetic corks come in many colors made to appeal to Gen X sensibilities – like condoms. They can only be counted on to protect wine for 3 to 6 months.

Agglomerated corks were historically made from recycled and REJECTED (read: contaminated) corks that are ground up, then glued back together to form a cheap alternative. They consistently have the highest contaminant ratings.

Glass seals, and a few others, still have juries out, but tend to have similar issues to screw caps: the lack of oxygen egress.

I read George Taber’s To Cork or Not To Cork, and while it’s an interesting history of the alternative closure industry, it didn’t have any real conclusions other than they all have problems. He did seem to suggest TCA/cork taint comes from using chloride to clean (corks, winery, equipment), so if you eliminate that, you eliminate your problem.

Yes – however, while the chlorine issue is very correct, it has been dealt with years ago, and there are still taints.

Where do you see the taints come from then?

The – by far – vast majority of all TCA/cork taints did not come from cork; they came from the winery contaminating the corks (and barrels, etc) with their microbes. The three main sources are: (1) mold that forms on wet cardboard (case boxes), (2) wood pallets and (3) wood walls and floors in wineries that have been treated with mold preventing products.

So, you can very much have a corked wine in a bottle that does not contain a cork — or a contaminated cork (if that makes sense).

You believe with closures, it comes down to either corks or screw caps, depending on the type of wine you’re making?

Real corks, of HIGH QUALITY, have the second lowest contamination risk behind screw caps – so the advantage is screw cap for contamination. However, if aging is important to your style, corks have the advantage. If it is not – such as wines to be best drank young – then screw caps are your answer.

Wine Aging Takeaways

So, just to try to summarize, when trying to evaluate an age-worthy wine, are there any “rules” to help you evaluate what the wine might become in a few years? If the answer is – you can’t know what a wine will become unless you taste back vintages so you know what the winemaker is shooting for or you have to taste the same wine in intervals over time – then it almost seems like a futile effort because for most wines, there’s no possible way to collect all that info.

I agree it is difficult. I can only offer this: It is difficult to make hard and fast rules, because when you do, there will be those that break them.

Because there is so much info to possibly grasp, it is easier to make ‘rules’ if you are able to concentrate on a specific region or variety, and become expert at that (say, Cabernet, or regional wines, or whatever you choose.) It’s impossible to do on a wide or world level.

That way, you can develop experience, taste past vintages, get to understand the intentions of the winemakers, and know how the wines develop, etc.

However, in instances where this is not possible, then it’s best to ask lots of questions.

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