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.


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.

  • Hylton McLean

    Thanks Charles for an interesting article.
    There are many ways to speculate about what causes this aspect of “bottle variation”.
    Human sensory perceptions are probably one of the largest variables. Subtle changes in our state of health and mood between tasting events will be a big influence of how we respond to a wine at opening and after breathing.
    Bottle variation is intrinsically driven by natural cork variation. I have been at large tastings where 12 or 24 bottles of the same cork sealed wine were opened and the degree of bottle variation from flat, oxidised, reductive, corked, mildly corked, fresh and fantastic has been observed. Natural cork may impart flavours into wine as well as “scalp” flavour compounds out of the wine.
    Many grape derived flavour compounds are bonded to glucose and this form have no aroma. With time the acids in wine break open these molecules releasing the active aroma compound. This can take different periods of time depending on the concentration and mixture of flavour compounds found in any one wine. Further, some of the released aroma compounds can be chemically modified in the wine which may result in different aroma intensity.
    It is a very complex story, but it adds to our ongoing interest with wine!

    Hylton McLean

  • Julian Marshall

    Mr Curtis’ analysis of the effects of oxidation is spot-on. As to the “dumb” question itself, I don’t think there is a definitive answer – some wines emerge from that phase, some don’t. In the case of Bordeaux, I would suggest that a lot depends on how ripe the vintage was: for an 82, a 90 or a 00 to never emerge would be odd indeed, but for a wine from a more “classic” or tannic vintage, sadly it wouldn’t surprise me at all. The 75s were a good example, but I would say the same is true of some 86s and I suspect that 96s could also fall into that category, along with 05s (although for a different reason), the problem being that by the time the tannins recede, the remaining fruit is either insufficient or oxidised.

  • With respect to Mr. Curtis it seems to me that the question of whether a ‘dumb wine’ will eventually open out, or will always stay ‘dumb’ has not been answered. How does one distinguish between the two?