Tales from the Crypt: A Cellar Story

My wine “cellar” is in fact a rented mini-storage unit in a big, thick-walled warehouse alongside the Hudson River, not too cold in winter and not too hot in summer. Most collectors would scream with horror at such an uncontrolled repository for their wines, but I’m not a collector and never have been.

(cover illustration © Mort Todd)

The wines I’ve stored over the years have been a hodge-podge: some bottles I wanted to give more maturity before drinking, and some samples – from back in the days when I was a more active wine journalist and samples came in over the transom – that I didn’t have time to taste at the moment but thought I might need for future articles. So if less-than-perfect storage conditions meant speeding up their maturation – in effect adding a few years to their calendrical age – that was and is no problem for me. In fact, it’s an advantage, since I have no plans to bequeath a cellar to my heirs and assigns, and I’d like to taste these wines while I still have functioning taste buds.

This is a long preamble to the fact that, now that I’m plodding my way through the Vale of Years, I’ve stopped adding wines to my hoard and started bringing home cases for tasting and drinking. Most of the time, these cases form a pretty mixed lot: My most recent one consisted mostly of 2007 and 2008 wines – some Burgundies and Chateauneufs and some Tuscan and Piedmontese bottles – all red, and all potentially pretty nice drinking, even if still a bit young by strict standards.

But this also furnished an opportunity to test just how quickly my less-than-perfect storage was aging these wines: Would I be able to taste properly maturing flavors, and would they be appropriate ones for 10- or 11-year-old wines?  Interesting questions, and just the kind to tempt an old wine-bibber to make a test.

So test I did, choosing 3 wines of the 2007 vintage from the case, a Chanson Clos des Fèves Beaune Premier Cru, a Selvapiana Bucerchiale, and a Cogno Barolo Ravera. I opted for those three wines because I know them well and am familiar with the pattern of their development. And I picked 2007 because it was a good, solid vintage in all three zones and because, at 10-11 years old, these wines ought to be on the cusp, passing from youth to maturity. So for my test purposes, these wines would be perfect subjects, able to answer the questions I’m asking.

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I allowed all the wines three hours breathing in bottle, not decanted. First wine up was the Chanson Clos des Fèves, which showed clear garnet with a definite orange edge – in a French wine, a definite sign of aging. It had a good nose of dark berries and dried fruit, with underbrush notes and a slight hint of wood. On the palate, the taste confirmed the aroma: dried cherry, medium body, fine balance, graceful and elegant, with a long, dry, fruit-and-leather finish. A little less substantial than I would have hoped, and a little further along its evolutionary path than I expected, but still not fully mature. In an ideal cellar, I would expect this wine to peak at about 20 years old or a little bit more. This bottle I would think would have needed only two or three more years to develop fully: to put on a little more flesh and open more forceful mature aromas.

Next came the Selvapiana Bucerchiale, a slightly darker wine with a bit more orange at the edge, which is quite characteristic of many Italian wines and not necessarily a sign of aging. It had a biggish aroma of dried fruits – a suggestion of prune – and earth notes. In the mouth, it was big and soft, with dark flavors – dried berries and a little tobacco – with fine balance and persistence. Not a huge wine, but mouth-filling. Though it showed no fresh fruit tastes, it still seemed some years from full maturity. I’d say that it’s on a proper path of maturing though a bit accelerated: From what I know of Bucerchiale, I would expect it to peak at about 25 years old in an ideal cellar; in mine, I think it will top off at about 20, which can’t come soon enough for me.

Then I tasted the Cogno Barolo Ravera, which showed the most orange of all the wines, and which I regard as perfectly normal for developing Nebbiolo-based wine. The nose offered a whole mélange of elements – dried cherry/berry, wet stones, mushroom, with similar notes in the mouth, where it showed as big and slightly tannic. On the palate this wine displayed no fresh fruit, but not all the mature Nebbiolo flavors that I look for were yet in place. So it is still evolving, and still needs some years before it will be fully mature. In a good cellar, this wine will go for 30 or 40 years: good Nebbiolo wines do that. In my storage, I expect it to be drinking best at 20 to 25 years old – which is a lot better for those of us not building heritage collections, but for a person of my age is still seriously pushing the envelope.

My Tasting Workshop

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This for me was a really interesting experiment, and it confirmed a lot of what I’ve thought about “cellaring” wines – principally that a lot of what have been thought to be absolutes about how wine is to be stored are far from absolute. Rather, they’re based ultimately on the evolution of wines in their makers’ caves or in the cellars of 19th century English great houses, cellars that are meant to be steadily drawn on and augmented over a lifetime and left as an inheritance for one’s heirs.

That doesn’t speak to the needs of people of more limited means and lacking anything approaching a great house, who want mature wine to enjoy in their lifetime. So as regards the “rules” of wine storage, I’d borrow a phrase from Martin Luther: Sin bravely. Just think about what you want from your wine and how to get it, then go and do it.

4 Responses to “Tales from the Crypt: A Cellar Story”

  1. Tablewine Says:

    I wish I had followed your path rather than putting my “collection” into professional storage, where they remained under perfect condition for 25+ years. Well out of sight, out of mind, until we had to move; shipping them cross country was prohibitively expensive. Alas, they hit the auction block. Oh had I only sinned bravely.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I am so sorry to hear that you didn’t get to enjoy your carefully saved wines. There is much to be said for brave sinning.

  2. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom, you ARE a wine collector, just not a “traditional” one. You put aside wines in a cool place for further maturation. I think that defines you as a wine collector. Interestingly, you tasted the Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, a wine I mentioned to you. I enjoyed your article, and it reminded me that i should be doing the same thing with my wine collection while I am still above the grass.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying that older wines taste much better above the grass, so by all means enjoy them while you — we — can. You and I have talked several times over the years about how undervalued Selvapiana is: I know we have both liked it for a long while now.

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