Tales from the Crypt

I’ve been doing a lot of wine travel lately, all of it in Italy. In mid-February I was trekking through an unexpectedly snowy and cold Tuscany, and in fact I’m in Italy right now. I wrote this post ahead of time and scheduled it to appear during the week when I’m off to hopefully warmer Sicily, followed by a few days in Piedmont. That adds up to a lot of Italian wines, mostly red and mostly very young. You’ll hear about all these eventually, but I need a little time to get some distance on them and think about them. In between trips, while I was home, I wanted to drink some wines that were neither Italian nor young, so I went scrounging in that “cellar” (i.e., closet) you’ve heard so much about recently. Here’s what I dug out.

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape blanc 2002

The white wines of the Rhone Valley are generally not well known in this country, which is OK by me, since there isn’t a huge supply of them and they’re expensive enough already. Although they can be drunk young – they’ve all got good fruit, sound structure, and usually intense minerality – they are supremely age-worthy wines.

At seven years of age, this archetypically Rhone blend – 80% Rousanne, with Grenache blanc, Picardan, Bourboulenc, and Clairette – was still very youthful, despite its appearance. It was the color of copper, and had a scent of copper too – definitely something metallic – plus dried pear and fig and any number of other things that popped up as it opened and changed with food.

White Chateauneufs and their cousins, the white Hermitages, are big wines, with a take-no-prisoners attitude: you have to come to them. This one loved our appetizer of smoked sturgeon, but it really wanted roast turkey or pork or veal rather than the skate meuniere we had prepared for a main course. Unquestionably a great, distinctive wine, and a fine representative of the whole august family. I have only a few more bottles, which I’ll try not to drink before their tenth birthday at least. Wish me luck.

Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1998

As should be clear to anyone who’s following this blog, I am not a huge fan of the dominant California style in wines – all that big, forward fruit and high alcohol – but Beaulieu Vineyards has never been a member of that school. It has always been one of the more European-style winemakers, emphasizing balance and elegance rather than power: diplomacy rather than a frontal assault.

This ten-year-old bottle of its flagship wine didn’t disappoint in any way. As expected, it showed itself balanced and elegant rather than forceful, though the nose is big and rich. Initially, some bitey green tannins appeared in the finish, but braised lamb shanks nicely smothered that and brought up the wine’s body and finesse. Green tannins don’t go away with bottle age – if they’re present in the grapes at harvest, they last in the bottle forever – but some foods can deal with them. 1998 must have been hot, with a lot of sugar ripeness to force harvest before the tannins completely ripened and softened – a frequent problem in California, which most producers use a lot of new oak to hide. I’m sure this wine saw some barrique, but not enough to alter its fundamentally sound flavors. A really nice wine, enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Ridge California Geyserville 1999

Ridge is another one of the California producers I trust. When push comes to shove, I’ll taste anything Paul Draper makes, and the odds are strong I’ll like it. He has a markedly European palate, and the wines he makes tend to reflect his predilection for balance, elegance, and depth. I love his Zinfandels because they become so claret-like as they age: they just seem to go from harmony to harmony, year by year. This ten-year-old was just perfect, and unfortunately my last.

Ridge’s always informative front and back labels tell a lot of the story. Front label:

68% Zinfandel, 16% Carignane, 16% Petite Sirah. Sonoma County. 14.8% alcohol. Bottled January 2001.

Back label:

Despite the season’s late start, moderate temperatures and a long, lovely autumn fully matured the fruit at Geyserville; harvest began in the last days of September. The old zinfandel (c. 1900) was picked first, then the young vines, planted in 1990. We waited until mid-October for the forty-year-old zinfandel and one-hundred and twenty-year-old carignane, finishing with petite sirah. Each of the eighteen parcels was held separate; naturally occurring yeast and natural malolactic bacteria carried out the fermentations. Twenty-five percent of the wine was aged in new, air-dried american oak, the rest in older barrels of similar wood. This Geyserville is among the finest of a great decade, and will be at its best over the next seven or eight years.

As I said above, this bottle made it ten years with ease, and tasted as if it could have gone on for quite a while yet. It had a great nose of prunes and plums and dried funghi porcini. On the palate, it tasted and felt like a fine claret – a good third-growth Bordeaux – but more intense and bigger without losing any of the polish. A great wine: I begrudge every delicious bottle of it that I’ve drunk before this last one.

*

Wines like this are why I cellar wine in the first place. If I were lucky enough to find wines of these now-long-past vintages on the market today, they would cost me far more in dollars than they originally did, and they would certainly cost me a great deal of time and effort to locate and acquire. The ease and convenience of just poking my head into my closet – excuse me: of course I mean stone-vaulted, cobwebby cellar – and choosing tonight’s wine is an inestimable value to a lazy curmudgeon like myself.

One Response to “Tales from the Crypt”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    Thoughtful post and you are right to note that the Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is a more European approach to Napa winemaking. As my palate changed from California style to an Italian style several years ago, I find it difficult to try some of the blockbuster Napa Cabs, as they seem harsh, bitter and lacking acidity.

    I recently tried 2 vintages of the BY (1999, 2000) and was thrilled with the structure of the wines. These wines were meant to age, as the grapes were harvested at the proper time to assure good levels of acidity. I haven’t tried the 1998 in some time, but this is when I was in full-flower with my love of California wines. I recall writing an article on this vintage and how producers and many in the media were disappointed, as it follwed a rather warm 2007 “showy” vintage and preceeded a gorgeous 1999 vintage. Yet everything is relative, as the wines from 1998 have excellent balance with good acidity. As the weather didn’t yield powerful wines (it was not that hot during the growing season), 1998 was seen as a disappointing year, but we know better!

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