What makes a great wine age?

I was given great insight into the secret of what makes the greatest wines in the world age by one of California’s most revered—and properly so—winemakers, Andre Tchelistcheff.

Andre was a Russian born, French trained enologist who came to the Napa Valley through George de Latour in 1938. While at Beaulieu, Tchelistcheff made many of Napa Valley’s greatest wines of the 20th century. Though short in stature, he was huge, monolithic as an influence on Napa Valley’s coming of age.

I met Andre the first year I moved to the Napa Valley in 1977. His door was always open to anyone who had a question or just wanted to pick his brain. In some way, he influenced every great winemaker in California for decades. Not one of us who met him was untouched by his wines and his mentoring.

One day in 1978, I was invited by Myron Nightingale, who was winemaker at Beringer then, to a lunch for winemakers. The location was the Grapevine Inn, now home of Brix restaurant. Please understand, there were no destination restaurants then for lunch. Or dinner for that matter. Nada. The Grapevine Inn was as good as you could do, no AC, just the basic sandwiches, salads, and steak.

The winemakers were Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Andre, and Myron. And a young rube who had the sense to shut up and listen. The subject came, “What is in a great wine that makes it age so gracefully one year but not every year? What makes a great wine age?” I wish I could remember who defended what theory, but “why” were all thrown on the table. One winemaker defended “the PH” in a wine, which gave it youth and balance when on the low scale. Another defended the acidity, and again a lower PH. Another thought the obvious secret to aging lay in the tannins.

Andre’s contribution to the conversation is the part I distinctly remember, and it has stayed with me all this time, and I feel very strongly he was dead on right. He was also the last one to throw down his cards on the table. Andre said, in his thick Russian accent, “No it is the flesh, it is the flesh in the great wines I have made that seems to give them grace with age. It is the flesh.”

And he rambled off some of his favorite vintages and wines, the ones that were legendary. “They all had flesh.”

I must admit it was a bit confusing at the time to me, but with age it became crystal clear. The great wines I made and tasted, to my mind, had “flesh”. They had a texture, a certain ripeness, but it is in proportion to the wine. This “flesh” is not overblown; it is compelling both in its youth, as well as with age. It has layers of flavors, it compels you to have another sip, and with age another glass. Those are the great wines. Those are the wines that age.

I am extremely blessed to have enjoyed so many of the legendary great wines. Two that are classic examples of Andre’s point would be the 1947 Cheval Blanc and the 1959 Domaine Romanee Conti. I was able to buy these when they were affordable, and accessible to me while being in the wine trade. I followed these wines over the years with great joy. There were bottle variation (another story), but all the best bottles had “flesh” throughout their lives. The DRC in the last five years faded past their greatest moments to me, but for decades they were rich, fleshy big wines. So was the 1947 Cheval Blanc. So were Andre’s great BV’s Private Reserves.

Andre drove sports cars, had a twinkle in his eye most of the time, and loved what he did as a winemaker. He was immensely intuitive about most things wine. If you wanted to place a bet on which wine would age, or where to plant a vineyard, my money was always on Andre. He knew the secret sauce, but even then as a winemaker, couldn’t duplicate it every year. But none of us can. But we try, we know a few secrets and we keep our eyes open when they come our way.