It's not always easy to tell the difference between a wine that doesn't express much and a wine that will improve with time. Charles Curtis MW explains to Decanter how to distinguish between the two.

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Ask Decanter: How to tell a dumb wine from a bottle past its best?

Spencer, via email, asks: How do you distinguish between a wine that is merely going through a dumb phase in its development and one that is over the hill?

Charles Curtis MW, for Decanter, replies: It is definitely possible to tell the difference between the two. Normally, one would say that a ‘dumb’ wine is not expressive – that is it has markedly less aroma, flavour and/or structure than one would expect.

Typically these wines will eventually open to reveal their secrets, but it will be necessary to wait. In my experience nothing will revive their spirits immediately: neither double decanting nor any other type of aeration nor any mechanical device will do the trick. Time is the only remedy.

Conversely, a wine that is past its best definitely has aromas, flavours and structure, but we’re not so sure we like what is being expressed.

These wines are most often marked by oxidation: first the fruit falls off, then the wine begins to have a meaty or savoury character; then this savoury aspect will intensify and the wine can show notes of strong umami aromas that some tasters describe as beef bouillon or mushroom or, more kindly, sous bois’. Sensitivity to this varies: some tasters dislike this register of aromas strongly, while those who often enjoy mature wines can be much more forgiving.

The meaty or beefy register is remarkably similar for reds and for whites, but with white wines the change is more marked because the colour darkens significantly. Here one often speaks of maderisation.

Charles Curtis MW is a wine consultant and former head of wine for Christie’s in Asia and the Americas.