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“Dumb Phase” - Much Ado About Nothing?

A reader sent me a note posted on a wine blog. The blog posting, titled “The Dreaded Dumb Phase,” stated that “Common wisdom holds that good Pinot Noir should be consumed either while young, or left alone to mature in the cellar for at least five years.” The explanation was that after youth, Pinot Noir goes through an adolescent phase in which the fruit goes away and the wine is awkward, the so-called “dumb phase.”

This was a perplexing statement to me that made little sense although I am well familiar with wines passing through a dumb phase. Pinot Noir often goes into a muted phase after it is bottled. This may last 6 months or more and is one of the reasons producers hold back wines for 6-12 months before release. The more gentle the process of bottling, the quicker the recovery time. A second muted phase may following shipping which typically lasts 3-4 weeks. It has been my experience that most American Pinot Noirs are not made to age and do not go through any appreciable dumb phase. To wait five years for an American Pinot Noir to mature is to miss the best drinking window for most wines. I asked the opinions of two experienced winemakers.

Don Baumhefner (Ridgeway Vineyard) said that “a bottle of Pinot Noir may go through some doldrums for various periods of time. Since each bottle of wine is alive and different, there are no hard and fast dumb phase periods you can predict. I have experienced Joseph Swan Pinot Noirs that went through dumb periods lasting up to ten years, then returning to be even better than they were before they became dumb.”

Ted Lemon (Littorai) said that “as for Burgundy, beyond bottle shock, it depends a lot on the estate, vintage, and bottling conditions. Some vintages go through periods when they do not express themselves very well and sometimes it is a precursor to decline, but sometimes they come out of it and return to glory. As a general rule, the more substantial the variety/wine, the more possible it is that the wine can go through a late dumb phase. It is more likely with a great and concentrated vintage of La Tache, even more likely with great Cabernet and more likely still with wines like Port. Pinot Noir, as you well know, is the articulate and beautiful young woman in a silk chemise. “Dumb” is rarely a descriptor which I find appropriate.”

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