Yesterday, I drank a bottle of the 2007 Stag's Leap SLV Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine has a famous pedigree, as the 1972 won the famous Paris tasting against leading Bordeaux competition (as a four year old wine, in 1976). I reviewed this wine a couple of years ago, when I thought it was balanced and harmonious, a nice drink. This time, two years later, the wine seemed tired, the ripe fruit quite dead, and the wine certainly not balanced, but rather over the hill.
I was then reminded of an article by James Laube, a well respected reviewer of Napa wines, who declared he does not age wines much anymore. They are so drinkable when young, they only go downhill from there. I was shocked at the time, how somebody with a sophisticated palate can give up on the complexity of aged red wines. But over the last few years I started to understand.
There are major differences in the way premium red wines are made around the world. I don't pretend to understand all the subtleties, but for starters the acid and tannin profiles vary a lot between countries. This is what I now believe makes sense.
Leading French Bordeaux wines need to be cellared. They come into their own only after many years. A typical drinking window would be 7-25 years, with 12-15 years the sweet spot. This is for good wines in good vintages. What do I mean by sweet spot? It is the time when primary fruit is still quite present, but secondary characteristics have emerged, leading to increased complexity on the palate. In top vintages, these numbers go out further.
Napa Cabernet is fruit focussed, with less acidity, and tannins often quite silky. These wines need a bit of time to settle, but they are most exciting when they are young. My drinking window is 3-8 years, with 5 years being the sweet spot.
Australian Shiraz is a curious case. Acidity is often quite low as well, but the best drinking time is later than for Napa Cabernet. 5-12 years would be a typical drinking window, with 7 years the sweet spot. Premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River is best around 10 years, in my experience.
Italian Barolo varies a lot, depending on the maceration period and tannin profile. The traditional wines are similar to Bordeaux, the modern ones, with short maceration periods, more like Australian Shiraz.
The caveats to this are; at the end of the day, it is a matter of taste; some wines are made to be drunk early, some last a long time; and my definition of the sweet spot is for those who like primary and secondary characteristics in their wine.