curtisuxor wrote:As for my Q: Do wines really have a "dumb age"? Or is this something invented by wine sellers to encourage people to drink more, faster? Has anyone really tasted a wine when it was "dumb" and when it was (I assume the alternative is) "smart"?
If that really does exist, I don't understand how a wine could ever recover from that in a closed bottle.
1. Yes, it really exists for some wines. It is primarily a phenomenon in red wines made in traditional styles that (are intended to) age well.
2. The wine with which the description 'dumb' phase or 'asleep' is most closely associated is Cabernet Sauvignon.
3. In Europe, traditionally made serious red wines - with the possible exception of Burgundy - were very tannic in their youth and not particularly pleasant to drink. This was particularly true in Bordeaux, the Northern Rhone (Hermitage; Cotes Rotie) and Piedmont (Barolo) - the wines which have been considered the great reds for the past 300 years, at least. Because the grapes often barely ripened, it was atypical to find the sort of fresh fruit flavors that are characteristic and readily available to winemakers (who don't let the grapes hang too long) in sunnier climes. One did not speak of a dumb phase with these wines because they were usually not enjoyable before they were 7-8 in most fair-to-good years, or before 10 or more in very good to great years, when the bottle aromas - known as bouquet - began to emerge and the tannins softened. Those who drank such wines knew this and it was one of the reasons the wealthy built the great cellars of legend where you were essentially drinking wine laid down by your grandfather or father, and buying wine for your children and grandchildren.
4. In California (and now places like Australia), the climate permits the grapes to ripen well (almost) every year. The result was that even wines made in a traditional style from grapes used in Europe to make age worthy wines would have far more fruit aromas and flavors in their youth, even though were still tannic. Hence, Cabernet (primarily) made in California was a far, far, more enjoyable wine at the age of 4-5 than a Bordeaux of equivalent quality grapes.
5. Although before Prohibition there were significant efforts by wineries to hold red wines back for aging, and to release them at 8-10 when they were mature by traditional standards, a sad combination of the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 (over 1 million gallons lost and another millon+ gallons used to fight the fire) then Prohibition depleted the stocks of aging wine and prevented the accumulation of new stocks for aging. After Prohibition, another bad combination of high demand for wine and a punitive tax regime conspired to make it uneconomic for all wineries to hold wines for 8-10 years of aging.
6. Because the wines had fruit flavors and aromas, wineries could release Cabernet at 4-5 and they would be enjoyable to drink on release.
7. However, the cycle of wine in the bottle transitioning from fruit flavors and aromas to bottle bouquet and the softening of tannins still took (and takes) place.
8. Wine drinkers who did not have experience with high quality aged European wines noticed that the wines seemed to get dull a few years after release as that process took place. Those drinkers just assumed the wines didn't age well. Most wineries were perfectly happy not to say anything because they needed to sell wine every year. (Same reason people used to say every year was a good year in California....). Really knowledgeable wine drinkers were content with the general ignorance because it kept the prices for really great, age worthy Cabernet (of which there wasn't a lot) very low. (In the mid-1960s, you could by Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet for $1.50 a bottle, less in case quantity.
9. Even today, with the popularity of the International Style, traditionally made red wines will go through a phase during which the fruit flavors and aromas fade to a degree (not all that much in great years - you can still smell fresh fruit aromas in the best 1970 Cabernets), bottle bouquet develops and the tannins soften over time.
10. Based on 55-odd years drinking serious Cabernet, my rule of thumb is that I don't touch decent Cabernet before it's 10. The 'dumb' phase usually lasts from age 5-6 through 8-10, depending on the year, the style of the winemaking, and the handling of the aging process in the winery (type of wood, length of time, etc.). But, I learned to drink wines of the traditional style and prefer them aged. If I want younger, fresh-tasting wines, I drink varietals that are more known to be drinkable in youth, and - sometimes - are more enjoyable as young wines than as aged wines. Often the case with Zinfandel, depending on vinification.
Hope this helps.