Out of the Cellar . . .

In the 50 or so years that I’ve been drinking and paying attention to wine, the culture of wine has fundamentally changed. In those thrilling days of yesteryear, as the Lone Ranger radio program used to intone, wine was primarily French, and, except for Beaujolais, most wines were thought to be the better if they were aged for a decade or so. A well-stocked cellar was the ideal most wine neophytes aspired to, and the superiority of old Bordeaux and Burgundy to any young wine from anywhere was an unquestioned and unquestionable truth. 

EVERYONE'S DREAM WINE CELLAR? (Photo by Petr Novak, Wikipedia)

Now, young wine rules. Fruit is king. Big, fresh, forward fruit flavors – berries and plums if red, pears and apples and tropical fruits if white – guarantee a wine big scores, big sales, and maybe a cult following. Serious producers lament that their wines are being drunk far too young, but every year more of them restyle their wines to push that fruit up front. Terroir gets lip service, but fruit balances the books.

At the same time, cellaring wine has transmogrified from a connoisseur’s hobby to a hard-nosed investor’s practice. Wine – at least, the top-growth Bordeaux, some grands crus Burgundies, and a handful of Italian and Californian stars – has become a commodity, bought and sold and re-sold for profit. We used to make jokes about the Japanese, who ceremonially gifted and re-gifted each other with never-to-be-drunk bottles of Margaux and Lafite. Now we nod sagely at the latest auction prices for never-to-be-drunk cases of Margaux and Lafite. I know which of the two situations I find more pointless, but I suspect not many people would agree with me.

In the old days, cellaring wine was relatively simple, even if the rules were iron-clad. A good wine cellar had to be dark, because light could cause chemical changes in wines. It had to be still and vibration-free, because even small amounts of motion or shaking could speed up the wine’s process of maturation, stir up its sediments, agitate it, and cause who knows what undesirable chemical changes. It had to be a constant 55 degrees (or 50 degrees, or 45: experts disagreed), because heat is the great enemy of wine, causing it to age much too fast and unpredictably, and also contributing to undesirable chemical changes (do you sense a theme here?). It had to have a constant 35 percent humidity, to prevent corks from drying out, which would destroy the wine by leakage, oxidation, and – you guessed it – undesirable chemical changes. In short, any change in the wine not brought about by slow, controlled aging was probably undesirable.

Now that wines have become an investment, the folks who play that sort of game follow the rules even more rigidly, and they make sure that all those conditions are certified as surely as the wine’s provenance, lest they miss a penny of profit on the transaction. That usually means third-party storage under secure, temperature-and-humidity-controlled conditions – an expensive proposition that adds a great deal to the now-stratospheric purchase price of the great growths and their kin. From my point of view, it’s a chump’s game. I couldn’t enjoy drinking a wine so expensive it made my hand shake and my mouth go dry – and if I can’t enjoy drinking a wine, what’s the point? Maybe it’s just envy of things I can’t afford, but I can’t get past this simple mantra: Wine is meant for drinking.

That indeed was the whole point of cellaring wine in the first place. Most of our beliefs about cellaring wine have their roots in the conditions prevailing in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, which is when the modern version of serious wine collecting began. (The classical version of wine collecting, under the Roman republic and empire, involved entirely different conditions – clay amphorae sealed with resin for storage of the prized wines of Campania. Bordeaux and Burgundy were still wildernesses.)

The purpose of cellaring wines was exclusively to mature them for drinking, and as connoisseurs – primarily Englishmen – gathered their prized wines, they did their best to keep them under conditions similar to those of their making. Thus, cellars for dark and cool and humidity, etc. – the whole by-now-traditional package of requirements. Think 18th-century European farm and manor houses: earth cellars, no central heating, no AC, no humidifiers, and lots of servants – a very different world from ours.

One thing has remained the same: The underlying reason to cellar wines is that you love the taste of mature wine. So if all you’re after in wine is fruit, or if those primary fruity flavors that almost all young wines display are what you most enjoy in wine, then forget about cellaring altogether. You don’t need it. It will add nothing to a wine that you won’t get within a few months of its release. In fact, cellaring may well subtract from that element of your enjoyment.

If, on the other hand, you’ve been bitten by the mature wine bug, you’re cursed and blessed – cursed with the endless pursuit of age-worthy wines, and blessed with the incomparable pleasure they will give. I was lucky enough to be able to drink some properly aged wines early in my bibulous career. Those were for me profound experiences, which left me with a life-long love of mature wines.

One long-ago Thanksgiving, for instance, my good friend Al Cirillo poured for Diane and me a 1928 Barolo – some 40 or 45 years old when we drank it. We have no idea who its producer was: Its label was so faded and tattered that only the name Barolo and the vintage were legible. Al had picked it up in a shop that had acquired it in a miscellaneous cellar collection. A good three inches of sediment lay at the bottom of the bottle. When poured, the wine was very pale garnet with that ubiquitous Nebbiolo orange edge. And what an aroma! What a huge mouthful of dark, leather and pepper, dried-berry and plum flavors. The youngish (10-year-old) Clos de Vougeot that we had drunk just before the Barolo faded into insignificance in the face of the Barolo’s profundity. We’ve never forgotten it: it has been for years a palatal reference point for us.

The modern cellar at Pontet Canet

Similarly, many years ago, when I was first beginning serious wine journalism, I and several other scribblers visited Chateau Pontet Canet, a long-neglected Fifth Growth Pauillac, acquired just a few years before by Guy Tesseron, who was then beginning the process of renovation that has brought Pontet Canet and its sister estate, the St. Estephe Lafon Rochet, to their present heights of prestige.

We dined in the cellar, I recall, a cool spot in a very hot Bordeaux summer, and after several vintages of Pontet we were served the pièce de résistance, a 1945 Lafon. The Fourth Growth Lafon in those days didn’t rank very high on anyone’s list of great Bordeaux chateaux. It too had not been well maintained (there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made in wine back then, and consequently not a whole lot to be invested in it). But, however humble, this was a wine that had reposed in its birth cellar for some 30 years, and until served to us probably hadn’t been moved since it was first laid down. Once decanted and poured, it was a revelation: as wonderful, as elegant, as balanced, supple, and complex, as any of the First and Second Growths I had tasted. That, I thought at the time and still believe, is what proper aging can do, and that is exactly why you bother to cellar wine.

For many of us, however, “cellaring” can only be a metaphor. Next post (to paraphrase Freud): What do wines really want?

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