The ability of a wine to improve with age is one of the benchmarks closely associated with their perceived prestige. There’s little reason for this, with one very powerful exception. Many wine lovers build cellars as much for drinking as for show, and while row upon row of old zinfandel might be visually impressive, the truth is that the wines themselves generally peak relatively early, within their first decade, and fade rather quickly. The wines may still be fun to drink, many Zinfandels from the 1970s turn into something approximating Rioja for example, with their faded fruit, autumnal character, and evidence of American oak still intact, but they are now better than they were in their youth.
Examples from more recent vintages, with higher alcohols and lower acidities, reflective of the trends dominating production over the past two decades, have fared worse. Many of these wines have simply imploded once the fruit has faded, leaving mostly alcohol and added acidity to torture one’s palate. The evidence supports the general consensus that Zinfandel is best consumed in its youth, but that doesn’t mean that some hard-headed wine lovers out there might want to test that theory, intentionally or not.
Being one of these hard-headed types, I’ve cellared Zins for 30 years now. Not many, but enough to know that the wines that outperform after decades in the cellar are the rare exceptions. But still, I have a few cases tucked away in my cellar, and considering all the intellectual effort I’ve been devoting to Zin as of late, this seemed like a great time to do a little cellar cleansing, or rather test the general consensus.