Wine Talk

Snooth User: JonDerry

Wine going through a "Dumb Phase"

Posted by JonDerry, Dec 2, 2011.

I've often heard of this phenomenon from a number of different sources, and you hear it repeated by casual drinkers over and over but i'm not really sure if I've ever heard an explanation for it.

Can anyone shed some light?

How a wine can drink well upon release and then for maybe a year after, but then "go to sleep" and shut down for a number of years after.  In my mind I'm thinking it could be there are two arcs (factors) contributing to a wine's drinkability, one that improves with aging to a certain point, and other a wine's freshness or some other such factor that would be at a high level after about a year of bottle age, but then recede shortly thereafter. But then, granted, that doesn't make much sense.

Could it be possible this is myth? At the very least it seems to be a candidate for something often misunderstood, or used an excuse for a poor showing.

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Reply by EMark, Dec 2, 2011.

Jon, I have never heard of this, but I'm not necessarily surprised that (1) there has been discussion of this phenomenon and (2) I have missed this discussion.

My vote is "Myth."  As a "casual" wine drinker (as opposed to an individual in the profession), I can think of a multiple reasons why my evaluation of a wine is not consistent, and none of these has anything to do with the wine. 

Now, if continuing conversation on this topic points to controlled tests where experienced, respected tasters have observed and documented this phenomenon, I guess I'll have to, one more time, admit that I'm wrong again. ;-)

The hypothesis that you propose is not unreasonable.  It would be cool if it could be tested. 

This is interesting.  I look forward to reading more discussion of this.

Reply by dmcker, Dec 2, 2011.

Think it's more than a myth. Would be interesting to hear GregDP talk about his experience with Barolos in their dumb period.

My understanding/limited experience is that it has a lot to do with how a wine is made. Doubt too many Californians (and fewer Bordeaux these days) go through one. Perhaps it's another reason why Spanish houses release their wines after substantial time.

Reply by GregT, Dec 3, 2011.

It's actually not a myth, although it doesn't happen to all wines.  And it's  been something that's been noticed for many decades.  Peynaud wrote about the various flavors in wine.  The primary flavors are the fruit flavors that you get from crushing grapes, the seconday flavors and aromas come from fermentation when you take that fruit and turn it into wine, the tertiary flavors are those that come with age - the "mature" wine flavors, which are very different from the first two.

There are specific molecules that give us the flavors of grapes, strawberries, cherries, etc.  These break up over time.  Tannins link up and break apart.  Sugars break up. Oxygen reacts with some of the molecules and so does sulfur and so on. Acids combine with alcohol, forming esters and other molecules that create different flavors and more importantly, different smells. Those break down and form even different molecules. Every component has its own timetable.  So some things only emerge after time, but other things are disappearing and recombining on their own schedule.  The "dumb" phase is the point, if any, where you've lost a lot of the primary and secondary flavors but you haven't yet developed the mature flavors that you're looking for.  The French call it l'âge ingrat, likening it to a moody adolescent.

That said, it's not like every wine has a "dumb" phase.  Some just never emerge from the loss of the early fruit.  I had a few the other night that seemed to have lost any interest and simply tasted like oak juice. Then last night I had a few that, at 10 years old, were still showing mostly early youthful characteristics.  My suspicion is that they'll keep those for a number of years and then those will gradually fade away but there won't be anything interesting happening.  No idea really, but it's what I'd bet on. 

In wines where there is in fact a dumb phase, it's pretty hard to predict when that will occur and how long it will last, as much of that depends on vintage characteristics and winemaking and storage.  Basically you go by past experience and hope for the best.  Most importantly though, you just have to remember that many people just aren't very good tasters. And, as pointed out by someone else, your own palate can vary enormously from hour to hour.  Personally, I rarely take anyone's word about a wine being in a "dumb" phase as more often than not I figure the wine just isn't very good to begin with or the taster just doesn't like it. And sometimes it just needs a little air to improve.


Reply by dmcker, Dec 3, 2011.

"I rarely take anyone's word about a wine being in a "dumb" phase as more often than not I figure the wine just isn't very good to begin with or the taster just doesn't like it. And sometimes it just needs a little air to improve."

I'm also a bit skeptical when someone (who I know doesn't know wine that well) starts pontificating on a 'dumb period' for a given wine. That being said, I'll stand by my earlier (and GregT's) comment that the phenomenon is not merely mythical.

Regarding Greg's last sentence I quote above, methinks it deserves a thread of its own. Wines change greatly, and variously, over the next several hours after opening. A truism that we all claim to know, but how many people do a thumbs down and move on when a bottle's only been open for a little while, little knowing how surprisingly improved it would be two hours down the line...

Reply by Johnny Wine oh, Dec 3, 2011.

I have some Dom. D'Ardhuy Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru 'Sous le Puits' 2006 which was drinking really well about 18 months ago and then hit a dumb stage. It is starting to drink better again now but not as fresh as origionally but there again i don't expect it to be. All that fresh sherbert has all but gone with nice aged honey tones pushing through. I think what you tend to get in white wines in the dumb stage is overpowering wood that does settle down again with better quality wines thus alowing the now not so powerful fruit to show again. It is basically down to personal taste, i have customers who love the woody numbers but others who steer well clear. When we taste wines as a team it is blatently obvious that each person has different tastes and preferences e.g. Jackie loves aged wines, in my opinion overly so, where as i prefer an amount of freshness in bottle with underlying wood.

Jonathan Cocker (Martinez Wines)

Reply by EMark, Dec 3, 2011.

Greg, thank you for the interesting and informative post.  The information you provide lends a lot of support to Jon's hypothesis.

"It's not like every wine has a 'dumb' phase."  From that statement one might (probably, incorrectly) conclude that most wines do have such a phase.  Are there any statistics for what percentages of wines do show this?  Is there any correlation to winemaker/grape/appelation or any other easily identifiable trait that would improve the predictability of whether a wine would experience such a dumb phase, when in its storage lifetime it may occur, how long it lasts?

Reply by GregT, Dec 3, 2011.

All good questions. I don't know the answers either!

I don't know if "most" wines have a dumb phase, in fact I think that most don't and only some do, but again, I have no evidence whatsoever to support that. There are some rules of thumb people bandy about, like 10 years for Bordeaux, x years for Barolos, and so on, but there are just so many variables that I don't know if you can do any good analysis. I would think vintage would be huge - we can see in the way that the same wine from different vintages ages that vintage has a profound effect on the overall life of the wine.

I have a book that was written by some sommelier in the 1970s and he says for sure all the good red wines have this stage.  Well, the wine world was a lot smaller then, but I have had wines that didn't go thru that stage at all.  As with so many things concerning wine, there's a lot of common "wisdom" that gets repeated endlessly but there's often no science to support the wisdom.  I think there are many plausible reasons for a wine appearing "dumb", but I haven't seen a lot of literature addressing your questions. Would be interesting to find some.

As far as D's comment - the savvy distributors/importers/producers who show their wine to critics who don't taste blind, most definitely set the wines up ahead of time so that they'll show their best.  They'll even take a few bottles and open them at different times, then select the one that's showing best to present to the critic. It's why I think it's insane for a critic to taste many dozens of wines in a sip, spit, and split kind of format.

Reply by Lucha Vino, Dec 3, 2011.

D said "... Wines change greatly, and variously, over the next several hours after opening. A truism that we all claim to know, but how many people do a thumbs down and move on when a bottle's only been open for a little while, little knowing how surprisingly improved it would be two hours down the line..."

I used to give up on wines way too early if they didn't taste "right"  My best pay off for patience was a wine that was horrible for two days and then hit the jackpot on day 3.  Who would have known?  Now I put a bottle that is not living up to expectations back in a dark corner of the kitchen counter and try it again 24 hours later.  Most of the time I am rewarded for giving that wine a second (or third) chance.

Reply by JonDerry, Dec 4, 2011.

Greg, thanks for that run down. Makes a lot of sense about the secondary and tertiary flavors, so much so that it seems pretty self evident. Finding out which wines are susceptible to it and typical time frames for the period (or when it tends to peak) would be very useful to us all i'm sure. Have heard about the dumb period with rhone whites quite a bit as well.

Have also heard Manfred of SQN talk about his Syrah's drinking well upon release and then maybe a year or so after before going to sleep for 5-7 years.

Reply by GregT, Dec 4, 2011.

Well, that can backfire. Today I was cleaning off the counter and gathering up bottles and glass to take out to the recycling container.  Grabbed a bottle and was surprised to see that it felt like it had something in it.  So I looked and sure enough, there was half a bottle of wine.

Crap!  I'd set it aside a few days earlier, we opened some additional wine, and it got pushed to the back.  I had a half dozen bottles sitting there for a couple of days and was to lazy to take them out so I completely forgot about that wine. 

Moral of the story? 

If you put your stuff on the counter, REMEMBER you put it there!

Reply by dmcker, Dec 4, 2011.

So did you taste it, Greg?  ;-)

Reply by GregT, Dec 4, 2011.

Uncorked and on the counter for a few days?

Contrary to what you may believe, I do have standards!!!

Reply by zufrieden, Dec 4, 2011.

That's just plain dumb, but play dumb all the same.  This was a very informative and enjoyable thread.  My only comment on "dumb periods" in between laying the wine down and actually consuming the product is that, as one ages oneself, one rarely needs to concern oneself with this problem as the urgency to consume generally precludes any problems with wine dormancy.

Enough said.

Reply by dmcker, Dec 5, 2011.

So no vinegar cask, Greg?

Reply by napagirl68, Dec 5, 2011.

Hmmm... interesting topic, and GregT seems to address it well. 

I just wanted to interject that I had a similar experience with a 1997 Chimney Rock Estate Cab....   I tasted in the tasting room, was great.  Bought quite a bit (in 2001).  Opened one a few days later... AWFUL!   I am thinking, bottle shock?  I let the bottle sit for several hours, and decanted after the disappointment.  Subsequent bottles over the years were hit and miss.  I never thought about "dumb period" or adolescence.  I chalked it up to a bottle to bottle variation.  But perhaps I was wrong??

GregT or anyone else....  Is there really a bottle to bottle issue with a quality winerey?  I know the cheapos have it due to variation in fruit/quality, but is bottling an issue with a solid winery?  Just curious, as I got really turned off to this winery for that reason  (and no, it wasn't corked!  just tasted like it died!)

Reply by dmcker, Dec 5, 2011.

Definitely bottle to bottle differences. Have had it from first growth Bordeaux, so guess that qualifies as 'quality' wineries. Quite often same vintage, different shipments. Once or twice same shipment. Figure there was some bottling issue in the latter case. Can think of several factors in the former.

Back in the '70s and '80s, lots of issues even with famous wineries in Italy and France. Now, not so many, but still encounter it even with Californians.

Would be interesting to hear GregT's experience with Spaniards and Hungarians and Argentines....

Reply by JonDerry, Dec 5, 2011.

I would expect nowadays there not to be much bottle variation exiting a state-of-the-art winery, but there's the whole part about getting the bottles back home and ready to drink. Have to worry about heat in the car if you take them with you, and if shipping how much jostling around will go on, etc.

Reply by GregT, Dec 5, 2011.

Well, if you're talking about bottle variation period, that's one thing, but if you're talking about bottle variation when it comes to a "dumb" phase, that's maybe a little different.  There are different variables that come into play.

If you buy a case or two or three from the winery and take them home and put them into your cellar, they've all had identical storage issues so one would think that the bottle variation would be due to things like the vat the wine came from or the cork. Or maybe you stored one where it wasn't quite as cold as the others.

Anyway, let's assume those aren't issues.  If you buy a couple bottles from a store, all bets are off.  They may have had a case or two sitting around and then had a few more delivered in 99 degree heat, the bottles may have come from different shipments from the winery itself, they may be from different lots, or who knows. Definitely experienced it from Spain but it's also found in other places.  For one thing, you may have a co-op wine and there can be some variation in the various bottlings.

But even at a "quality winery", and let's define that as one that does only estate-grown fruit, they may decide for God knows what reason, not to bottle the entire run.  So they leave some in the tank and well, there's more air space so they add sulfur.  Next run gets bottled and maybe they do it again.  And if you come late in the game, you get a shipment of wine that is so full of sulfur you worry about flames. Stupid practice but unfortunately one I've experienced first hand.  They ruined what should have been excellent wine and ended a business relationship.

Argentina is a case apart. They seem to play a lot of games and if it were my winery, I'd probably spend a lot of time right there making sure I was getting what I paid for.  Hungary too.  It's unfortunate because some of the top producers really want to do things on the up and up, but then you get someone who  sends you a white wine of unknown provenance with some strawberry flavoring.  WTF is this you wonder. Oh yeah. That's your rosé.

I think a lot of bottle variation from "quality wineries" comes down to provenance and to corks.  No facts to back me up here though. However, at some of those quality wineries, they may decide that they're going to be "minimalist" or "hands off" or "natural" or some other such BS.  How do you define that?  Well, according to some people, you use "native" yeasts and "minimal" sulfur.  That gets me on another rant, but that's most assuredly going to result in bottle variation down the line. Especially if you ship the wine from one continent to another.  Oh yeah, those bottles vary. 

Reply by erniex, Dec 6, 2011.

Intresting.. I always thought that "dumb phase" and "shutting down" was pretty much the same thing. I still I kind of wonder, but with the initial decription posted by you, Greg, that the dumb phase occurs between the secondary and tertiary aromas I guess not. The shutting down normally happens in the youth of a wine, right? I have seen how Parker has many times mentioned, that Chateau Neuf du Pape drinks well in its 5-7th year, to then shut down and reemerge in its 10-12th year of life - as a rough rule of thumb of course. So whats that to be considered. Shutting down or its expected dumb phase..?

I really like wine with some age, but I often have a hard time figuring out when exactly that is. And now I have 2 phases to look out for - not to mention the clearly too young and past prime stages...damn.

Reply by jonnyW, Dec 6, 2011.

Chateuneuf de Pape WHITE - fairly small production - is almost always subject to a dumb phase, at maybe 3 years until five, when it blossoms again.  It is almost a different wine, when it oopens again.

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