Wine often shuts down and goes through a ‘dumb phase’, but what causes it and how do you predict it? Charles Curtis MW explains

Noted classics scholar and wine lover George Saintsbury in his Notes on a Cellar-Book quotes Jonathan Swift as saying, ‘Sir, I drink no memories’ – but of course, he did, and so do we. Indeed, it is the memory of wonderful bottles already drunk that holds the attention of wine lovers, and can provide both the greatest satisfactions and disappointments of our wine-drinking careers.

Whatever other virtues wine can claim, constancy is not one of them: from the moment the fermentation ceases, the wine begins to change. Among the most frustrating changes is the dreaded ‘dumb phase’, when a wine, once exuberantly fruity and sensuously lush, suddenly appears hard and unyielding, and the once-plentiful aromas have all but disappeared. Confronted with such a result, wine lovers begin to despair of their purchases and doubt their ability to taste. Assurances that the wine is ‘only going through a dumb phase’ do little to allay the consternation – particularly when the bottle costs thousands of pounds.

One of the classic (and alarming) cases of a dumb phase is the instance of Lafite-Rothschild 1982. I remember it as a wine of silky, velvety texture and lush, nuanced fruit with a beautifully lingering finish. But one afternoon I decanted a bottle and thought it seemed a bit shy. It was prior to a client dinner in the Christie’s boardroom which I hosted as head of the wine department in New York. ‘With time,’ I thought, ‘it will open well.’ Unfortunately, it didn’t. When the guests arrived at 6.30pm, it was still shut down. After the fish course, it still seemed fairly mute. Finally, when we brought forth the decanter with the venison, the wine had opened a bit, though it was a far cry from my recollection of its earlier splendour. Fortunately, more recent bottles have been consistently lovely. What could have caused such alarming behaviour?

The science of smell

Unfortunately, the phenomenon is not well understood. The question of why wines smell at all is a matter of intense study. One generally refers to the scent of young wine as its aroma, and to the more complex smells of a matured or maturing wine as bouquet. Aroma is produced in wine by the volatile compounds present in grape skins and juice.

Literally thousands of volatile compounds are present in grape juice and wine. The identification of specific compounds with their associated aromas is still a work in progress that continues using high-tech tools such as gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers. What is certain, however, is that this array of aromas is constantly changing as the alcohols and acids present in wine combine with each other as the wine ages in bottle.

Aromas of fresh fruit are the first we perceive, and are thus referred to as primary aromas: apple, currant and grapefruit are all common descriptors. To this are added smells from the fermentation, whether this is the buttery aroma of malolactic fermentation, the vanilla spice of barrel ageing, or the yeasty notes of Champagne stored on the lees. These are called secondary aromas. Finaly, there are the mysterious tertiary aromas that result from the volatile esters produced in the bottle by the combination of the wine’s alcohols and acids. These can range from truffle to cedar to lead pencil and soy sauce. Along this route from redcurrant to truffle and soy, there are many stages of evolution that delight and baffle the wine lover.

In some cases, the tasting process begins well before the wines are put into bottle. Traditionally, the first glimpse of a new claret vintage is in the spring after the harvest, a year or two before the wines are put into bottle. This en primeur tasting will often show an exuberately fruity character that will disappear by the time the wines are bottled and shipped to eagerly waiting clients.

Bottle shock

This initial reticence is due partly to the use of sulphur at bottling to protect the wines from oxidation and from the disruption caused by the bottling process itself, referred to as ‘bottle sickness’ or ‘bottle shock’ as the wine absorbs the oxygen incorporated during the bottling process and comes to a new equilibrium.

Fiona Morrison MW of Pomerol producer Le Pin notes that it can’t be just the sulphur, since little is used at Le Pin. She ascribes the initial awkwardness of the wines to a disruption at bottling of the chains of phenolic compounds (principally tannin and colour) present in the young wine. To put it in layman’s terms, she notes: ‘The poor tannins are so squeezed and battered during the bottling process that the tannins’ chains are broken up and it takes a while for them to knit back together.’

Another source of agitation for the wines comes from transport, where, in addition to movement, the newly bottled wine is often exposed to variations in temperature that can gravely affect the aromatic development. Bernard de Laage of Château Palmer ascribes much of the inconsistency in this development to transport and storage. He says is hard to say that a wine is in a ‘dumb’ phase at any given time since we do not know what to expect at any given time. He suggests, instead, that a wine goes through different ‘plateaux’ of evolution, and that when a wine is ready to move from one to the next that it often does not show its best.

Frustratingly, he notes that such a stage can happen even to a great wine such as Palmer 1961, and that it can appear muted during a certain amount of time, but that the length of this period cannot be predicted. Since factors as diverse as cork quality, transport and storage have such an important impact, the length of time that a wine is afflicted can vary from bottle to bottle.

If the process of evolution were a reliable curve, it would be less worrisome to most buyers, but it’s not. Different wines evolve at different rates, and only one thing is certain – wines produced all over the world go through a dumb phase. Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac, however, notes a difference in the evolution of different terroirs: ‘Some terroirs have a different ageing curve, but I’m not sure that I would call it a dumb phase. For example, Bonnes Mares, which is more tannic and structure-driven, takes longer than Clos-St-Denis to reach maturity. Grand cru wines take longer than village wines, but that is also because they have more to offer.’

Anecdotally, it seems to be the case that bigger, riper, hotter vintages are more prone to a dumb phase than the classic, elegant wines of cooler years. At consecutive dinners in Hong Kong, we recently drank Domaine Rousseau’s Chambertin 1999 and 2000. The 1999 showed massive extract and great potential but remained fairly closed, while the 2000 was already expressive and forward, with a lovely perfumed fruit character and an approachable, generous texture on the palate.

Opening up again

Even more frustratingly, it seems impossible to predict how long a wine will stay shut down. Noted Taipei collector Wood Chen says he began to drink his stock of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche 1985 fairly early, and in 1988 to 1990, it showed superbly well, but closed up completely a few years in. Only in 2012 did it begin to re-emerge as the great wine that it is. But DRC’s Richebourg 1985, he says, completed its dumb phase promptly and has been drinking well for close to 20 years.

Wood’s solution? Buy wine by the case and open a bottle periodically to monitor the wine’s progress. Decanting well in advance of consumption can also help, but some amateurs are loathe to decant Burgundy or Rhône wines. In truth, wine lovers are relatively powerless to combat the dreaded dumb phase, and there is little substitute for experience.

According to Australian wine auctioneer Andrew Caillard MW: ‘More often than not, it is hindsight that identifies periods of inertia.’ Caillard’s view is summed up in the title of his drinking guide of Penfolds wines: The Rewards of Patience. Fortunately for us, experience shows that the wine will most often ‘come back’, returning with even more complexity and life. Wine, our fickle mistress, is true to us in her fashion.

Wines that shut down: how our experts tackle the issue

Steven Spurrier

Strangely enough, wines that shut down are a different problem to wines that aren’t open yet, though both are part of a wine’s trajectory from youth to age.

Wines that take an age to open up – Anthony Barton said that the 1937 Médocs ‘finally came round after 50 years, for about 15 minutes’ – are less common now, thanks to riper grapes and better winemaking, but wines that go through a dumb phase are all around. But they do seem to be limited to varieties with high tannin content – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese – while Pinot Noir and Grenache evolve more smoothly.

Moreover, wines from these two grapes fade gracefully, rather than dry out. A Corton 1974 opened recently was fragrant and refined, not something that could be said of a Pauillac from the same lean year. Whites also go through dumb phases: Jean-Pierre Perrin recommends drinking his Beaucastel, Roussanne Vieilles Vignes either from its first year or from its fifth year in bottle. Vintage Port, too, will taste exuberant young and then shut down for a decade and more.

Shutting down is, of course, the fault of the wine, not of the drinker, but even those with large cellars to choose from can’t avoid their own mistakes. From a case of claret, I generally drink the first three bottles in their dumb phase, the next six behave pretty well, and the final three get a bit tired. This is why I now buy claret in cases of six.

Michael Schuster

Apart from buying sufficient quantity of a wine to follow its development, for which you need a deep pocket, broaching wines at intervals (haphazard, but it’s what most of us do – I think it’s time to try X again) and exploiting a variety of decanting strategies (another can of worms), there is no failsafe strategy for avoiding these dumb phases in fine wine.

It’s part of the fine wine game, which you either accept – with a certain amount of frustration, of course – or else you don’t play it. A vinous version of ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’, though it seems a bit negative to put it like that.

My own approach (I see the world through rose-coloured spectacles) is to urge people to enjoy wines for what they have to offer at any given moment, rather than to regret what they don’t. And to get the occasional memorable surprise, which will see them through the next series of mild disappointments.

Hugh Johnson

‘Opening’, ‘breathing’, call it what you like; wine needs it. The question is why some wines have a mid-life crisis and refuse to breathe, even in a decanter. I don’t know, nor can I generalise, perhaps because if I do see it I don’t always recognise it. I just think I’ve opened it too soon.

If I took Steven Spurrier’s advice and opened bottles at regular intervals during their youth I might catch them starting to sulk. What is clear is that vintages evolve at different speeds, sometimes rushing, sometimes dawdling. Perhaps the best test is a horizontal tasting. Is it evident that some wines, those (say) at four to eight years of age, depending on the quality of the cru, are mean, or stubborn, or hiding more than they should? That is not my experience. You can usually see the style of each vintage and the advancing maturity of the wine well enough.

I rarely drink young claret, but I do drink young Burgundy, and similarly see a pretty steady, if not quite predictable, development over time. For reasons that are wonderfully mysterious, a Chorey and a Corton advance at different speeds, but each passes through certain stages and you can choose to judge it sooner or later – expecting a different reward.

Your problem, if you are finding wines sulkier than you hoped, is impatience. If it’s young fruit you want, catch it young. If it’s full maturity, be patient. The plateau in between is rarely flat, and may well hold surprises.

Written by Charles Curtis MW