There Is Beauty in Extreme Old Age

With a nod to the sagacity of Gilbert & Sullivan – neither of whom, I think, would have minded being linked with wine – the sheer pleasure of really mature wine is probably the most underappreciated aspect of that noble beverage in our time. Saintsbury and other tipplers of his and G&S’s era routinely drank their wines older than we are for the most part accustomed to. They assumed that laying down a few dozen bottles was what you routinely did with a wine you liked in a vintage of merit, and you didn’t disturb their rest until they had pulled themselves together.

I’ve made no secret of my liking for mature wines,  but I was reminded of the wonderful truth of just how beautiful old age can be in a wine, on two very different occasions recently.

The first involved a wine that always rewards aging, despite the current fad for drinking it young: Amarone. This is a wine that is deliberately built for aging: very ripe grapes are placed on mats or hung in cool, drafty halls high in the Veronese hills and allowed to dry for months before pressing, after which they ferment very, very slowly at low temperatures all winter long until all their sugars have been converted to alcohol (Amarones run almost the strength of fortified wines) and all the possible flavor has been soaked from their skins. At that point, Amarones are fruit bombs – thus the current passion for drinking them young – and like all such wines one-dimensional: alcoholic grape juice, and apparently very appealing to the chocolate-martini crowd. Let them rest in your cellar, however, and the brashness of the fruit subsides and a host of secondary flavors – fruity, nutty, earthy – start coming to the fore. The longer you leave a properly made Amarone alone, the more complex and velvety it gets.

A few weeks ago, in the course of trying to squeeze a few more bottles into my storage space, I came upon a bottle of 1986 Masi Amarone whose cork had been leaking. The level of the wine was dipping down the shoulder of the bottle, and my first thought was that the wine was probably dead, oxidized beyond drinkability. My second thought was Hold on: It’s Amarone, and they are tough to kill. I remember, back when I was researching and writing Mastering Wine, I found several times that half-empty bottles of Amarone tasted better even after a week. So I thought I would give this bottle at least a chance with that night’s dinner: it might be still drinkable.

Well, it wasn’t just drinkable: it was wonderful. Not oxidized at all. The fruit was still alive, though much matured (as indeed it should have been at 24 years old) and interlaced with delightful earth and forest floor and mushroom and cooked meat notes. On the palate, it felt soft and smooth with just a hint of chewiness, and the finish went on and on. It was a glorious wine, and if the leaky cork had done anything at all, it seemed to have advanced the wine’s maturation a few years, for which in fact I was grateful – a lucky accident for me. O felix culpa!

The second occasion was an assembly – maybe I should say a feeding frenzy – of the group of  wineloving friends fondly known as the Gang of Six at La Pizza Fresca restaurant in Manhattan. As is our custom, we all brought wines, and it was no shabby collection that we enjoyed with our lunch – a superb 1996 Henriot Champagne, a ’96 Corton Grand Cru, a 1990 Borgogno Barolo (gorgeous!), a 1988 Grato di Grati 100% Sangiovese.

My own more modest contribution was a 2000 Bucci Verdicchio, to honor a special request for an aged example of that wine and grape. Ampelio Bucci makes what I think is the most distinctive Verdicchio in the Iesi zone, maybe in all of Italy’s Marche region. Deeply flavored, always balanced and beautifully structured, his wines regularly take Tre Bicchieri and really set the benchmark for the kind. I was a bit distressed to discover that I had finished up my older Bucci riserva bottles and all I had left were a few of his basic Verdicchio – wines I really should have drunk a few years ago, since they weren’t vinified, as the riserva is, for long aging. But a promise is a promise, so I chilled the 2000 and brought it along.

When we opened and poured, its deep gold color seemed to show that it was too old – oxidized and probably dead. It didn’t have much aroma, and its flavor seemed tired. So I just set it aside. I kept going back to it as we ate and tasted our way through the long lunch – and it kept getting better and better. Its flavor kept opening and its aroma expanding, especially in the mineral flavor range. After two hours, it was tasting positively Burgundian, to my and Ed McCarthy’s and Charles Scicolone’s delight. Valuable lesson here: never underestimate what well-made Verdicchio (this had seen no new oak, only large, old botti) is capable of. This is a variety, and the Marche is a zone, that have not yet realized all their potential.

What both these instances showed me was that many Italian wines have an aging-and-enduring capacity that I haven’t yet fully explored. Clearly, there’s still a lot to learn. My hunch is that it’s the marked acidity of many Italian wines that keeps them alive beyond the life span of many seemingly similar sorts of wine. That’s a project for investigation that I hope will keep me happily busy for many years yet.

6 Responses to “There Is Beauty in Extreme Old Age”

  1. Ernie DeSalvo Says:

    Hi Tom,
    I really enjoyed your blog. I have read your articles in Decanter but never had the pleasure of savoring your extensive knowledge, gorgeous writing style and great sense of humor in this format. Rest assured, I will follow your peregrinations around our beloved Italy from now on and look forward to lots more. BTW, how about a vertical of old Produtoris or Aldo Conternos or Borgognos or Monfortinos? THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW (and I need a drinking partner).

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thank you, Ernie, for your generous praise.

      A vertical of old Barbarescos or Barolos is always something I’m up for. Right now, however, my highest priority is surviving the holidays, which are approaching with all the speed and determination of a lion closing in on a gazelle. Let’s keep in touch about that, OK?

  2. Doug Says:

    How many great bottles of vino have been destroyed over the years by people incorrectly storing it!!! An absolute disgrace!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      It’s a shame, but not necessarily a disgrace. Not everyone can afford optimum storage conditions, and many — I included — would rather take their chances with less-than-ideal storage than do without the wine. Most less-than-perfect storage accelerates the aging of the wine (which can be a boon); it doesn’t necessarily kill it — though, of course, that is always a possibility, depending on the fragility of the particular wine and the degree of imperfection of the storage. But wine comes from a vine, and vines are tough, and I think a lot of wine is more resilient than most wine lore allows. Don’t let the mantra about “wine is a living thing” spook you: people are living things too, and many wines can endure almost as much as we can.

  3. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    What a wonderfully elegant, positive statement about aging you have posted.

    There are countless producers and consumers who should read this.

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