Do preservative free wines age?

Accepted wisdom is that ‘preservative free’ or (very) low sulphur wines must be consumed within a year or at most two from bottling. The absence of added preservative means that they’ll drink well in the short term, if they’re well grown and made, but will fall over pretty quickly. Make hay. Don’t hesitate. So if you line up a seven year vertical of a $20-ish shiraz, what exactly will you find? One fresh new highly drinkable release, one that’s still hanging on, and five horrors?

Battle of Bosworth (BoB) put just such a wine to the test. BoB’s Puritan Shiraz is organically grown (certified) in McLaren Vale. It doesn’t even see any oak. It’s been released each year since 2010. The back label states: ‘intended to be enjoyed young’. There’s an alternative theory out there in the wine ether that if a wine has been meticulously well made, and is squeaky clean to start with, then it will live and mature over a far longer period than most people assume. Of course, many or most ‘preservative free’ wines are pretty ordinary to start with; you’d imagine they’d go downhill faster than Chris Froome on a surprise attack. Truth is though, with this well-made and grown example from Battle of Bosworth, I had little idea what to expect as I sat down to taste them all. Here’s what I found:

Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz 2010:
14% alc. The fruit seems porty but it’s still fresh enough. Certainly drinkable. Aromas of brown bread and funk. Anise to the palate. Palate still has shape. Good mouthfeel too. Jelly beans. This wine would have been better when it was young, you’d imagine, but six years from vintage and with no preservative added: as they say in the classics, it’s a credit to itself. Half tick.

Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz 2011:
13.5% alc. Always going to be an interesting one. Such a difficult year. Throw a tonne of preservative at it and there were still likely to be ageing issues. Or such were the preconceptions. This looks remarkably fresh and vibrant. It tales off, and feels/tastes advanced, through the finish but the mid-palate hasn’t budged much. Spiced berries. Mid weight at most. Pretty good. Most surprising. Half tick, but almost a full tick.

battle of bosworth puritan shirazBattle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz 2012:
14% alc. Back to a proper year. There’s been a brown-bread-topped-with-green-apple character to all the wines and it’s here again. It’s not off-putting but it causes a pause. Onwards. Berries aplenty, leather and spice. You can see the development but it’s a positive; it’s not falling over, it’s maturing. Plus the hit of boysenberried fruit flavour keeps the drinkability factor high. Was this better on release? Maybe, but it was almost worth keeping it for a few years. It’s drinking very handily. Tick.

Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz 2013:
14.5% alc. Winefront gave this 91 points on release and while GW set a 2013-2014 drinking window, he did add a + sign; very prescient of him. Truth is that it’s still drinking beautifully. Fresh, punchy, vibrant with fruit. No preservative? No worries. Blackberry jam, violets, game, pepper. It’s all still there. Only thing that’s changed over time is that it’s softened. You might not score this higher than previous but you’d argue this is a better drink now than it was in its first year. Controversial. Big tick.

Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz 2014:
14.5% alc. Crikey, this isn’t going to script. I recall this wine when it was young: it was good. It’s now very good. It sits in a beautiful drinking zone. Jubey and floral, free-flowing, a touch funky, a lot good. No brainer. Excellent drinking. Big tick.

Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz 2015:
14.5% Apple juice acidity and lots of it. A good burst of fruit. I was expecting to like the wines more and more as I tasted through to the most recent releases; I have no doubt though that I like the 2013 and 2014, at least as they’re drinking now, more than this 2015. No sign of falling over, the fruit just doesn’t seem as compelling. Half tick.

Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz 2016:
14.5% Bursting with life. This is how its maker intended it to be consumed, and it’s right in the zone. Similar to the 2015 but with a bit more body. It looks for all the world like a drink now proposition, but given the history …

So there you go. Two, three, four (and longer) years on some of these wines are looking eminently smashable. No sign of tiredness, in general, and some argument that they’re drinking even better than they did on release. Most interesting. A few points should be kept in mind of course:

  • each of these releases came to me ex-winery, and were transported to me in the depth of winter. A different storage history may well produce different results … and while the same can be said of any wine, arguably low preservative wines are more susceptible to poor handling/storage.
  • no doubt screwcap seals come in handy here.
  • no doubt these wines were well-balanced to start with. Crucially.
  • alcohol is a natural preservative and other than the 2011, none of these wines are shrinking violets on the alcohol front.

Once I’d finished this tasting and these notes I went back and quickly re-tasted each of the wines. Two hours had elapsed. The 2010 hadn’t moved. The 2011 had gone. The 2012 looked more raisiny; it was waning. The 2013 was still cracking along. And the 2014 was still the pick of the bunch.

My conclusion? Go early, in drinking terms. But when a release is good, don’t expect it to fall over in a hurry. It will keep on singing, even if you think it has no right to.

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