Archive for the ‘Bordeaux’ Category

Four Fine Bordeaux Estates

May 21, 2018

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a Bordeaux tasting as thoroughly as I did this season’s final Wine Media Guild lunch. For more than a few years now, I’ve been unhappy with a lot of the biggest names in Bordeaux because the wines have been tasting – how to put this? – more and more industrial to me, as if they were the end-result of a large-scale commercial production. Whatever the truth of that, there were no such problems with the WMG’s tasting of Château Latour Martillac (Pessac Leognan), Château Beychevelle (Saint Julien), Château Kirwan (Margaux), and Château Guiraud (Sauternes).

All were classic examples of what their appellations ought to be – or what my memory tells me their appellations used to be before The Sacred Quest for Parker Scores homogenized Bordeaux. If these wines are bellwethers of a wave of post-Parkerism . . . well, let’s just say it’s about time.

What I was impressed by in these four estates was their balance, elegance, restraint, fidelity to variety and terroir, and vitality – all qualities likely to escape the notice of the wine newbie or wannabe interested only in bold fruit, but ultimately the characteristics that separate fine wine from fermented grape juice.

  • The Latour Martillac reds all showed the lovely cedary-ness and sinewy-ness, the whites the roundness and vigor of the Graves.
  • The Beychevelles had all the balance and appeal, the cushioned Cabernet flavors, that one hopes for in Saint Julien.
  • The Kirwan wines were simply classic Margaux, enticing in the nose and opulent in the mouth.
  • And the Guiraud wines presented a symphony of botrytis and mineral flavors, amazing sweetnesses counterbalanced by vivid acidity, that amount to almost a definition of Sauternes.

These were Bordeaux wines as I haven’t experienced them in a long, long time, and I loved every minute of it.

Any of these wines, even the oldest, could mature further. The ’98 Guiraud, for instance, still needs ten years to reach its peak, and none of 2000 reds showed any sign of fading. The 2000 Kirwan, in fact, was one of the top two wines of the day for me. The younger wines all seemed to be developing quite nicely, with the 2005 Beychevelle in particular (my other top-two wine) already tasting splendid and promising years of further development. Were I several decades younger than I am, I would be cellaring these wines and trying to keep my hands off them for at least a few years more.

Here are the wines presented at the luncheon:

Château Latour Martillac Blanc 2011, 2013, 2015
Château Latour Martillac Rouge 2000, 2010, 2015

Châateau Beychevelle 2000, 2005, 2009, 2014, 2015
Château Beychevelle Amiral de Beychevelle 2015

Château Kirwan 2000, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015
Charmes de Kirwan 2010

Château Guiraud Sec 2015
Château Guiraud 1998, 2009, 2010, 2015
Petit Guiraud 2015

That last wine is a rather charming demi-sec. The two second-labels presented, Amiral de Beychevelle and Charmes de Kirwan, both showed as smaller but still elegant versions of the primary wines. One last noteworthy quality of all the wines shown was the consistency of style each house demonstrated over several quite different vintages, which is no small accomplishment. It would be a wonderful thing if a great Bordeaux revival was a-borning.

Bordeaux Blancs: Silver Threads in a Sea of Reds

March 16, 2018

Once upon a time, the Bordeaux region produced more white wine than red. Unless you are well over 50 or of a scholarly bent, I suspect that statement comes as a surprise. Nevertheless, it’s true: It wasn’t until the 1970s that red wine production surpassed white in Bordeaux, and it hasn’t looked back since. Now white varieties account for less than 10% of the total Bordeaux vineyards – though that still amounts to over 42 million bottles of white wine a year.

Numbers like that seriously challenge our notions of winemaking as an artisanal activity, but wine has long been big business in Bordeaux. Back in the heyday of white Bordeaux, dry wines like the white Haut Brion and sweet wines like Château Yquem were the style- and price-leaders of the region. Good Sauternes have held onto a diminished market share and an undiminished reputation, and no one questions the greatness of Haut Brion blanc, but most producers of dry white Bordeaux have to scrabble hard for shelf space these days.
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Image from The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Click to enlarge.

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To cast some light on this neglected sector of the wine universe, the Wine Media Guild devoted its March meeting to exploring a broad spectrum of whites from throughout the entire Bordeaux zone: That is, from both sides of the river Gironde and its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne, as well as from the northern tip of the Medoc peninsula to about 50 miles south of the city of Bordeaux. This covered a lot of ground and many different wines, all of which were thoroughly explained by the WMG member-organizer of the event, Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW.

The appellations involved included the largest, Bordeaux Blanc, representing roughly 60% of the production, and from anywhere in the zone, and the next largest, Entre-Deux-Mers. The latter is an exclusively white-wine-producing zone lying between the Garonne and Dordogne: It accounts for about 20% of the production. Also included were representatives of much smaller appellations, including several Côtes, for example, Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg: All the Côtes together account for about 3% of the white wine production. The most prestigious zones remain Graves (5%) and Pessac-Leognan (3%). The latter used to be comprehended within the Graves, and its wines have always been among the very best of all the appellations.

The Wine Media Guild tasting ran to 30 wines, none older than the 2013 vintage and the majority from 2016. The complete tasting sheets, showing each wine, its vintage, its grape mix, importer, and suggested retail price, is appended to the end of this post. A quick look at it will show that the predominant grape varieties in Bordeaux blanc are Sauvignon blanc – the heavy favorite, with even a few 100% Sauvignon blanc wines – and Semillon, with a small amount of Muscadelle and/or Sauvignon gris occasionally used.

Most suggested retail prices are very reasonable, which is appropriate, because the great majority of these wines are pleasing companions to everyday meals. That is emphatically not damning with faint praise: The world needs more well-made, simple wines like many of these, at prices that ordinary human beings can afford; and the recent up-tick in American consumption of white Bordeaux may very well reflect a growing perception of their value-for-dollar ratio.

I am not a super-fan of Sauvignon blanc, not even in its Old-World manifestations, which tend to be more subdued (less cat’s pee) and more elegant than the New World versions. But I do think that blending Sauvignon with Semillon makes a wine that is better than the sum of its parts, so most of the wines at this tasting easily passed muster, and a few really spoke to me. Enthusiasts for Sauvignon will probably rate all these wines even higher.

Château Carbonnieux has long been a favorite of mine, and the 2015 vintage in this tasting did not disappoint. It had a combination of depth and elegance and balance that seemed to indicate it would be gorgeous in two or three more years.

Right up there with it was Château Brown, an unmemorably named wine that, as a colleague remarked, usually flies under the radar. This 2014 vintage was just lovely and kept opening in the glass, showing more and more fruit and structure.

I’d give the bronze for this tasting to the 2015 Clos Floridene, a balanced and gentle wine of real charm. These three – and a few others – are more than just everyday-dinner wines – though, come to think of it, they would do just fine with a good chicken, or a turkey thigh.

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You can see the complete Wine Media Guild list here.

Aging Gracefully: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux

January 5, 2017

Over the holidays, what with Christmas and New Year dinners, both Days and Eves, plus interstitial (I love the chance to use that word) gatherings with family and old friends, we tend to pour a fair amount of mature wine at casa Maresca. This year’s sacrificial lambs included a 10-year-old Barolo, a 15-year-old Barbaresco, and (sob!) a 50-year-old Bordeaux. These wines of course gave me great pleasure in the moment but also intense pangs afterward, as I realized that none of those wonderful bottles was replaceable, much less replicable. But that’s what family, friends, and holidays – and wines! – are for: celebration of all those fleeting moments.

Of course I just exaggerated a bit: Some of the wines I’m celebrating today are replaceable, at least if you move fast.
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baroloLet me start with the infant of the group: a 2006 Barolo Riserva Vignarionda from Oddero. I regard a 10-year-old as a young Barolo, so I decanted this and let it breathe for about 2 hours before pouring. At that point, it showed a rich, deep, earthy nose dominated by black fruits and tobacco. On the palate it tasted of those two components, with some still-emerging nutty and mineral flavors sliding in and out. If I had to be precise, I’d say black plums and black cherry, with clay notes, funghi porcini, and walnuts. It felt round and soft in the mouth with an abundance of fine but still firm tannins, and it finished very long. With food, and especially with cheese, the tannins softened and the flavors deepened.

This is an excellent Barolo, ready to drink but still far from its mature peak – and the best news is that it’s a new release. Oddero has adopted a policy of, in very good vintages, holding back some wines for release later, when they are more ready to drink and show more of what Barolo is all about. I think this is an excellent way for wine lovers new to Barolo to get a good sense of why dotty old winos like me make such a fuss about Barolo. This particular example is from a very good year and an excellent cru, so it has the structure and the components to go another 20 years, if you have the patience to wait for it. If not, just enjoy it now.

I hope this strategy of releasing some wine when it’s more mature catches on in Piedmont: I know that Massolino, a very fine winery, tried it a few years ago, and I hope it continues the practice. In these days when not every wine lover has the space or the budget for a well-stocked cellar, it’s a real service to the consumer.
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barbarescoTasting that ’06 made me very curious about how the 2001s are progressing. 2001 remains my favorite Piedmont vintage of this new century, and I thought it was time I should look in and see how the kids were doing. So I dug out a 2001 Barbaresco Bernadot from Ceretto, a long-time favorite producer of the whole range of Alba wines. This is a wine from a fine cru in a very great year, which I fully expected to have a substantial structure and great depth, and at 15 years old might yet be very closed, so I decanted it and gave it 2 hours of aeration. As it turned out, it probably could have taken more.

This was a taut wine, showing elegance over power, with great depth and complexity, and a pure pleasure in the mouth. The predominant flavors were black cherry and roasted walnut, but what struck me most was its beautiful balance, composure, and suavity – there really is no other word. And enjoyable as it was, it’s probably 15 years yet from its peak. So the kids are doing OK: I only hope I can live – and taste – long enough to enjoy them.

There may well be some 2001 Barolos and Barbarescos still available in shops here: If you see some, you should probably grab them.
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gruaud-larose-66This brings me to the truly mature wine of this group, a wine in every sense worth waiting for, a 1966 Chateau Gruaud Larose. Most wine lovers know that Gruaud Larose is a classic Bordeaux estate, categorized as a second growth in the famous 1855 ranking. It consists of some 85 hectares in the commune of St. Julien, planted predominantly to Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, with small amounts of Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec – a very traditional Bordeaux blend. Back in 1966 – which, by the way, was a very great vintage in Bordeaux – Gruaud Larose was owned by the Cordier family, who had by that time been its proprietors for more than half a century.

Gruaud Larose has personal meaning for Diane and me, since it is closely linked to a very long-standing friendship that we were able this December to commemorate with one old friend and several new ones. So I won’t even try to describe the wine, save to say that it was amazingly live and fresh and classically St. Julien – that is to say, mid-weight and polished, with wonderful balance and restraint. The best St. Juliens always charm and seduce rather than overpower, and this 50-year-old did just that. I only wish I had some more of it! But as I said at the start, occasions like this are exactly what wines like this are for.

Happy New Year to all!

 

Endings, and Maybe Some Beginnings

January 8, 2016

2016 snuck in on little cat’s feet in my neighborhood, shrouded by soft mist and a rising fog from the Hudson that, along with some pain pills for my outraged hip, had me asleep well before the canonical New Year’s Eve moment of rooting and tooting. This holiday season has been an ambivalent one for me, with unanticipated post-operative pain vying with the unnaturally warm weather to keep most thoughts of seasonally appropriate celebration at a distance. Plus – a side effect of my medications – my appetite and capacity have fallen to next to nothing. So there have been no big, year-end whoop-di-dos here, though Diane and I have managed a few low-key relishings of our survival and mutual company – probably the best way of all to mark the holidays in any event.

For you, o faithful reader, the consequence of all that is that there will be no connected narrative to hold this post together – just a series of musings, prompted by a few of the bottles with which we measured the end of 2015. Milestones, of a vinous and vital sort.

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champagneAndre Clouet Champagne Brut Rose Numero 5 nv. This year, this lovely bubbly has become my go-to Champagne for serving to guests who drink Champagne and not labels. It has body, it has elegance, it has compatibility with all sorts of canapés and more substantial dishes, and most of all it has the kind of palate-caressing flavor that makes you stop mid-sip and just enjoy. I am usually a fan of rosé Champagne primarily as a dinner companion, but I like this one everywhere. Something about the complexity of its flavor, the paradoxical lightness and weight of its body, reminds me each time I drink it of the excitement I used to feel decades ago when I first seriously began exploring Champagne and discovering, with some naïve amazement, the variety of its pleasures beyond just bubbles. Snows of yesteryear, eh?  A very appropriate sensation for the end of one year and the start of another.

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villa bucciVilla Bucci Verdicchio riserva 2006. No point beating around the bush here: This is flat-out a great white wine and a textbook example of how white wines can age. I am constantly amazed that Verdicchio hasn’t really caught on in this country. It is an excellent grape variety, and the best examples from its homeland, Italy’s Adriatic-facing Appenine slopes in the Marche, show not only the variety’s intriguing flavors but also the land’s distinctive minerality. This bottle partnered brilliantly with Diane’s sea scallops Nantais to create one of the best wine and food matches of our holiday season. Ampelio Bucci, the genial and devoted caretaker of his family’s ancestral properties, consistently produces what is always one of the best (very often, the best) Verdicchio of them all. His wines have been constantly reliable over years and years, always big, elegant, and distinctive. One of the New Year’s resolutions that I know I’m going to keep is that our home will never be without some.

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ormes de pezChateau Les Ormes de Pez 1989. What memories this wine evokes!  This was one of the first small chateaux I tasted back when I first began learning there was more to Bordeaux than shippers’ Medocs and out-of-my-financial-league premiers crus. Les Ormes de Pez was and remains a classic, even though only a cru bourgeois. Every time I drink it, it reminds me why I love St. Estephe. It has all the elegance and balance that the great wines of Bordeaux specialize in, and on top of that the lovely little rasp of the (to my mind and palate) utterly distinctive St. Estephe terroir. I still don’t understand why no St. Estephe wine was ever named a premier cru. What are Cos d’Estournel and Montrose – chopped liver? They cost, of course, many times what Les Ormes de Pez does, which is still a bargain in current releases. We used to buy the ‘66 for $3 a bottle; now that’s around $100 if you can find it – and if I could find it, I’d happily pay the fee. $100 is cheap these days for Bordeaux. Pity what’s happened to Bordeaux prices.

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brunelloBarbi Brunello Riserva 1977. This part of this post, alas, is a funeral service. This bottle was dead, deeply, profoundly dead, though remembered with great fondness. The bottle had been recorked at the winery several decades ago, but it couldn’t survive in my less-than optimal storage. Or perhaps it had just reached the end of its natural span. It’s always hard to tell with a wine of this age.

This was the last bottle of a case of Barbi 1977 Riserva that I received somewhere back in the mid-to-late ‘80s as part of my winning the Barbi Prize for journalism about Brunello di Montalcino. It was a great honor and a grand occasion: Francesca Colombini Cinelli herself, the grande dame of Montalcino winemaking, travelled to New York to make the presentation. 

barbi prize 1

The wines drank wonderfully for years, with all the paradoxical muscle and grace, smoothness and asperity of classic Brunello. I guess I kept this one just a bit too long. They will all be remembered – and missed.

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Les ClosI had a similar experience a few days earlier with a 2002 Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, a wine that by all rights should have been splendid. But no: this bottle was as oxidized as a wine can get. A lesson to me for 2016: Drink my older wines while they and I both survive.

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Let me finish up this hail-and-farewell with two producers whose wines will be around for a long time to come, Vallana and Produttori di Barbaresco. Both are Piedmont producers who have long been important in their zones and increasingly so on the American market. Both are some of the finest bargains in the entire wine field, offering top-flight examples of their denominations at what are very affordable prices.

spannaFirst up: we drank a Vallana Spanna 2011, a mostly Nebbiolo wine from the northern Piedmont, still in its youth. Back when Vallana made its first entry in the US market, in the 1960s and 70s, its Spannas were famous for their ageability, and many 10- to 20-year-old bottles were available. Such is not the case now, but the wine still shows all the capacity to age that it ever had. And if palatal memory doesn’t deceive me, the Vallana fruit, as cultivated by the Vallana grandchildren, Francis and Marina, now is even more ample and more refined, with a mouth-flooding juiciness that makes the wines supremely drinkable at any age. This particular bottle of Spanna was the last I had on hand, but my top New Year’s resolution is to fix that ASAP.

barbarescoFinally, a bottle of Produttori di Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano 1999 rounded off our holidays – in a literal sense, since it was the wine that we drank with a New Year’s Day dinner. By now, everybody who knows Piedmont wine should know that the Produttori di Barbaresco consistently offers the unquestioned best value in the Alba zone. Its many cooperating growers between them control huge swathes of Barbaresco’s best vineyards and crus, and under the direction of Aldo Vaca, as knowledgable and understated a winemaker as any in Piedmont, the results are always worth drinking – in difficult years, sound and durable, in great years, off-the-charts wonderful.

Most wine journalists would agree with that assessment, just as most wine journalists have a kind of mental reservation that limits the praise they confer – maybe because it’s a co-op, and there is all the glamor of the single grower/artisan as opposed to the supposed “industrial” operation of a co-op. Let me start 2016 by saying that’s nonsense: The individual growers of Produttori di Barbaresco, and the winemaking skills of Aldo Vaca, between them make wines that stand on a par with any from the Barbaresco zone. These are simply great wines at great prices. My intention is to get more of them.

And so we turn the page from 2015 to 2016 – a look back, and a peek forward. Good luck and good wine to all of us! I have a feeling we’re going to need both.

Bordeaux Second Labels

June 29, 2015

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a small tasting of second-label Bordeaux wines organized by the importer/retailer Millesima. They were the red Connétable de Talbot 2008, La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet 2008, Confidences de Prieuré-Lichine 2008, La Fugue de Nénin 2002, and the white L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc 2011. It was a very pleasant affair, low key, no pressure, just a chance to taste and evaluate a handful of wines – a very welcome haven on a drizzly, chilly New York afternoon.

Millesima_L'Esprit Chevalier Blanc_2011_PackshotThe L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc and the Talbot Connétable especially stood out, while La Fugue de Nénin seemed tired: 2002 was not a very great vintage, and 13 years is pushing the envelope for second-label wines, especially a Pomerol. But all in all, the wines were what I’ve come to expect sound second-label wines to be: good without being overwhelming, true to type without being definitive of the type. In short, pleasant wines pegged at a price point to give a nice lift of palatal pleasure and sophistication to otherwise everyday dinners.

Millesima_ConnetableTalbot_2008_PackshotBut the occasion also started me thinking: When did second labels start becoming important? When I first got hooked on wine and began seriously exploring it, I learned on French wines. In those now long past days, wine was French, and the way into it was primarily through Bordeaux and Burgundy. I can’t recall any ready availability of second labels from Bordeaux back then – and there still aren’t any from Burgundy: So where did they come from?

Millesima_Demoiselles Mallet_2008_PackshotWine estates in Bordeaux – by which I mean that cluster of Médoc communes that contain the wines ranked in the famous 1855 listing and their satellites – have long occupied an enviable position in the wine world, whether you focus on the palatal/esthetic/craftsmanly aspect of that world or its commercial aspect. The prestige of Bordeaux may now be fading somewhat, as younger drinkers seem less and less impressed by it and more and more willing to try wines “outside the canon,” but commercially there’s no question that Bordeaux still sets the pace.

Millesima_Fugue de Nenin_2002_PackshotTraditionally, very few of even the most prestigious Bordeaux estates had second wines. Because their emphasis was on quality, and because many Bordeaux estates are very large (Château Margaux, for instance, has 80 hectares – that’s almost 200 acres – of vines), they often had grapes that were not judged of high enough quality to be part of the wine that would bear the château’s name. In most cases, back then, those grapes were sold off, usually to négociants who blended the grapes of several estates to make either village wines – a shipper’s Margaux or St. Julien – or, a step down the scale, a Médoc rouge, or lower still, a Bordeaux rouge.

Millesima_Confidences PrieureLichine_2008_PackshotAs wine boomed in the last quarter of the 20th century, winemakers realized that they didn’t have to sell those rejected grapes on the bulk market. They could instead exploit the prestige of their estate’s reputation by making them into another wine – not the same quality as the flagship wine, to be sure, but similar to it, and offering some of the pleasures of their great wine at a lower price.

You can view this in either of two ways:

  • as an enlightened gesture to make at least the shadow of a great wine available to drinkers who might otherwise never be able to afford to taste it, or
  • as a crass piece of commercialism that generates a lot more income from something of otherwise little value.

I suspect the motivation is in almost every case mixed, though I doubt altruism was ever the dominant engine. Forgive my cynicism, please.

At any rate, as long as all the grapes in the lesser wine originate on the property, a second-label wine is entitled to the same appellation as the château wine. Only when those grapes are mixed with others from other properties does a wine get demoted to village, Médoc, or Bordeaux status. That declension is what happened, for instance, to Mouton Cadet. That wine began its life as a second label of the famous Château Mouton Rothschild (more than 82 hectares of vines, for the record), and has since become a separate enterprise with only a nominal connection to the great estate, whose second label is now Le Petit Mouton.

So what then does all this imply about second labels, for the canny wine lover? As prices of the Bordeaux great growths have soared into the stratosphere, some second labels can be relative bargains, a chance to taste decent Bordeaux at fairly reasonable prices. But they can all too often fall to mediocrity. Usually they are vinified from an estate’s youngest vines or poorest-performing parcels, so their potential is limited from the start. All they’ve got going for them is the location of those vines and parcels – the whole Médoc, after all, is essentially a single terroir – and the fact (or the hope) that they received the same attention as the rest of the estate’s wines. Only by accident, and in a truly exceptional vintage (of which there are fewer than the Bordeaux hype machine would have you believe), will these wines ever approach greatness. Still, in a good year, you should be able to find a number of winners in their ranks. If you love Bordeaux, it’s certainly worth the hunt.

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

WSJ wine 4

 

What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

two books

If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

Gloria in Excelsis

September 8, 2014

Château Gloria and I go back a long way together. It was one of the first serious Bordeaux I tasted when I was just learning wine, somewhere back in the early Cretaceous, and it is still a favorite of mine and Diane’s.

The way I went about learning wine was by going to a knowledgeable, friendly wine shop and asking the owner to put together a case of wines that would show me the kinds of wines that were available. The Cretaceous-era giveaway is that when he asked how much I wanted to pay, he didn’t bat an eye when I said my ceiling was a hundred dollars for the whole case. No problem: He just selected a dozen wines– almost all French, because that’s what wine was back then – that included, from Burgundy, a Corton Charlemagne and a Nuits St. Georges (Les Boudots, from Henri Gouges: I can still taste that amazing elixir), and from Bordeaux a Château Brane Cantenac and a Château Gloria.

Once hooked on Gloria (which was from the first sip), we drank a lot of it – most of it too young, but I was still learning. In those days, the great 1966 vintage of Gloria was available for $3 a bottle in Macy’s excellent wine shop (yes, Macy’s had a wine shop back then, and a butcher shop too, and both were fine) with a 10% case discount, which made it affordable even on a meager academic salary. How I wish now I still had some of those ‘66s, or could get a young Gloria at those prices!  Où sont les neiges d’antan, eh?

Chateau Gloria

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A few nights ago, to match some succulent braised short ribs that Diane had made, I pulled our last bottle of Château Gloria out of my wine closet – which is what started this nostalgic riff. It was the last bottle not because we’ve lost our taste for it – far from it – but because it no longer costs $3 a bottle, or even 10 times that amount. More like 20 times, and Gloria has never been a price leader in Bordeaux. Our incomes, like most people’s, have not increased anything near 20 times since our youth, so Château Gloria along with the rest of Bordeaux has just sailed out of sight for us. Which is sad, since there are still some lovely wines there, even though I don’t like a lot of the changes that have taken place in Bordeaux over the years. But that’s a subject for another post, another time.

What I want to do here is not lament but celebrate, and particularly I want to celebrate the persistence and consistency of Gloria’s identity and character. When we first made its acquaintance, Château Gloria was a new kid on the block in Bordeaux, an estate only a little more than 20 years old, an unclassified growth of St. Julien that had been cobbled together out of bits and pieces of other estates (including some illustrious ones – Gruaud Larose, the Leovilles, Ducru-Beaucaillou). All those were classified growths, but that didn’t help Gloria’s status, and without the luster of history or high ranking, all it could rely on was its quality.

Fortunately it had that in abundance. Its creator, Henri Martin, the long-time mayor of St. Julien, wanted to make a wine that could stand with the Médoc’s greatest. He fought all his life to have the 1855 classification redone, and everyone in the wine world agreed that if it were redone his Gloria would be at very least a Fourth Growth, if not a Third – but of course that never happened, and Gloria continued to bump along, much beloved by many, but selling always at prices, compared to other Médoc wines, well below its standing. Which, of course, was fine for impecunious me, if not for M. Martin.

Which brings me to that final bottle, a 1990. Gloria has always been for me a classic St. Julien, elegant rather than big, suave and persistent rather than powerful. When I pulled the cork – carefully, because at 24 years old it was a little fragile – and poured our first glasses, many years (a few decades, to be honest) just evaporated. The aroma was exactly the same as those long-gone but fondly remembered ‘66s, and so was the taste and the mouth feel, the latter satiny and the former a rush of cedar and cassis edged with tobacco. It stayed that way through the whole meal, from a starter of cream of celery soup, through the unctuous braised short ribs, to the end of three very different cheeses (a nutty Brebis, a fine Wisconsin blue, and an assertive Grayson). Finished alone, even the last of the wine remained true to itself – poised, vital, elegant.

A lot of British wine wankers, including several who should know better, claim that Gloria isn’t the wine it used to be; that the house style changed in the 70s to a lighter, sweeter wine that wouldn’t age as well as the wines of the 50s and 60s. Somewhere between 10 and 15 years is often given as its life span. Well, my lovely final bottle, kept for years in my less-than-optimum storage conditions, just flat out gave the lie to that. Gloria remains what it always was – glorious.

“The Boar’s Head, as I Understand, Is the Rarest Dish in all the Land”

December 30, 2013

Equally repulsed as Diane and I are by super-sentimental and hyper-commercial Christmases, we usually opt for a quiet dinner with a few close friends and a few choice wines, with a menu more or less traditional and background music eclectic. This year was typical in all respects, and especially pleasing to me because the match between wine and food worked out very well for each course.

[The music wasn’t shabby either: It started with a CD called Une Fête Chez Rabelais (you will see why that was chosen) to set the mood, and followed for the rest of the evening with discs featuring the late, great guitarist Jim Hall playing with musicians like Bill Evans, Ron Carter, and Jimmy Giuffre. Jim – as I thought of him, though I always addressed him as Mr. Hall – lived just down the block from us, and Diane and I always used to see him walking his dog, J.J. He died earlier this month, and we miss him; so I privately thought of this not just as a Christmas dinner but as a personal Jim Hall memorial. I admire elegance in music as much as in wine, and Hall’s playing was always a model of elegance.]

pol rogerWe strove for some elegance in the meal too. We began with Champagne, of course: It’s almost obligatory at this time of year, and Pol Roger never lets us down.

That bubbly accompanied hors d’oeuvre of a mousseline of smoked sturgeon, a mousseline of asparagus, and almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, the latter served hot out of the oven, all three playing nicely with the effervescence and acidity of the Champagne.

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???????????????????????????????Aloxe-CortonAt table, our first course was morilles à la crème en croûte. The morels were fresh, not dried. We had bought them during their brief season, sautéed them in butter, and, after eating as many as we could hold at the time, froze the rest for just such a festive occasion as this.

They were delicious in their indescribably earthy, woodsy way. Swaddled in crème fraiche and cushioned on the world’s richest short pastry crust, they partnered beautifully with a medium-bodied, suave 2005 Aloxe Corton Premier Cru Les Vercots from Antonin Guyon.

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???????????????????????????????The pièce de résistance – this was definitely a French-accented dinner – was not a boar’s head (we’re not that traditional) but a long-cooked braised shoulder of wild boar, accompanied by French green beans and a puree of potato and celery root.

Lafon RochetThose in turn accompanied a very well-structured and deeply flavored 1998 Lafon Rochet in magnum. Maybe because it was in magnum, maybe because of the vintage, and certainly because of what the Tesseron family has been doing with this property for a few decades now, this wine could have easily been cellared for another decade.

Lafon Rochet is a fourth growth St Estèphe estate that the Tesserons have transformed as thoroughly as they have their more famous Pauillac fifth growth, Pontet Canet. This Lafon drank most enjoyably, to be sure, but it still showed so much in reserve that it was almost a shame to have it now. But it was a fine wine with the boar. It had the strength and intensity to match the richness of the meat, and the polish and complexity to play intriguingly with the sauce.

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Then came the cheese course.

???????????????????????????????At this point in the meal, I always rejoice in living just a ten-minute walk from Murray’s. We had:

  • a Colston-Bassett Stilton (Great Britain), which is as fine a blue cheese as exists anywhere,
  • a lovely, ash-grey-outside-chalk-white-inside Valençay (France),
  • a slightly pungent and very rich Grayson (Virginia),
  • a creamy and even richer Fromage d’Affinois (France),
  • and a great slab of Roomano (Holland), a sort of aged Gouda that simply loved the wine.

CornasThe wine was my very final bottle of Auguste Clape’s 1988 Cornas, which I served with equal parts of hope and trepidation – the hope because some previous bottles of this wine had been glorious, the trepidation because the last one I had opened had been dead.

Hope triumphed, I am happy to say: This was one of the glorious ones. In fact, it still showed some youth and vigor, and in addition its classic Cornas robustness made it a wonderful match for all the cheeses.

I am deeply sorry now for all the bottles of this now-priced-out-of-my-league Rhône beauty that I drank before what-I-now-understand-to-be their peak. Of such simultaneous heights and depths is the wino’s life made.

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???????????????????????????????Riesling VTMichele Scicolone had brought dessert, so we next consumed (yes, we could still eat!) her luscious pine-nut-and-apricot-jam tart. I matched that with a 2001 Trimbach Riesling Vendange Tardive, a wine with some sweetness of its own but plenty of acidity and real heft.

This was a shot in the dark, but it worked out well. The sweetness and savoriness of the tart meshed nicely with the lesser sweetness, acidity, and steely body of the Alsace wine. Of course, either would have been completely enjoyable on its own, but together they created one more dimension of pleasure and provided the final touch to what was for Diane and myself – and we certainly hope for our guests – a classic and only slightly Rabelaisian holiday feast.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hall.

Remember Claret?

September 16, 2013

A few nights ago, to accompany a classic rack of lamb, I dug out a classic bottle of claret. Claret has become a very old-fashioned word for what, I am afraid, is increasingly perceived as an old-fashioned wine: good, restrained, elegant, estate-bottled Bordeaux of a classified growth. Now, I will be quick to complain about many aspects of Bordeaux wines these days, but I also freely acknowledge that Bordeaux does several things incomparably well – and perhaps the foremost among them is to accompany lamb. To paraphrase something I wrote a few thousand years ago in The Right Wine, until lambs mutate into lobsters, Cabernet sauvignon is going to be a wonderful partner for their meat – and Bordeaux can still do Cabernet as well as anybody.

Talbot 86The bottle I chose for that succulent little rack was a 27-year-old St. Julien, Chateau Talbot 1986 – a mature wine but not an ancient one, and one from a conservative estate, where the post-Parker craze for big fruit and high alcohol has even now not taken hold. This was a wine made in the classic way on a large, traditional property (256 acres) of gravelly limestone soil in the commune of St. Julien. Vinified from 70% Cabernet sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and a mere 5% of Cabernet franc and Petit verdot, the wine was fermented in glass before aging long months in wood, with numerous rackings and finings. It then rested many years in what passes for my cellar, from which it finally emerged – “gloriously” would be too strong, and utterly inappropriate to Talbot’s style, so let’s say “finely” – with great polish and an almost British understatement.

Or maybe I think that because of the wine’s name and the estate’s history. I love a wine with a story, and this wine has a doozy. Talbot is obviously an English name (everyone of my generation will immediately think of hapless Lon Chaney Jr. as Lyle Talbot, the reluctant wolfman) and an old one at that. As most wine people know, the British involvement with Bordeaux – both its politics and its wine trade – dates back many centuries, and for a lot of those centuries Chateau Talbot was there. Certainly not the present buildings, but the property has been in situ since the 15th century. Talbot, along with Gruaud Larose (another favorite of mine and, not coincidentally, one owned by the Cordier family that also owns Talbot), stands among the few Bordeaux estates that still produce wine from the same vineyards that were classified in 1855. That’s what you call stability.

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The estate purportedly derives its name from the man whom tradition calls its first proprietor (though there is no absolute proof of this): John Talbot, First Earl of Shrewsbury and Constable of France. This Talbot was a famous English warrior in the Hundred Years’ War – companion of Edward the Black Prince, and of Henry V and Henry VI, opponent of Joan of Arc, scourge of several French armies. He died in battle in France in 1453. By all accounts, he was a violent, aggressive man of little polish but headstrong courage – in many ways, the stylistic opposite of the elegant French wine that carries his name into the 21st century. As Shakespeare says, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

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John Talbot

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Chateau Talbot tends, I think, to be consistently underestimated as a wine. Its elegance and restraint seem to work against it in an age when boisterous assertion is prized (John Talbot, however, could easily be a hero for our time). Clive Coates is restrained in his praise. That the estate makes wines “of considerable flair” is the most he will say, while Robert Parker is surprisingly more enthusiastic: “consistently fine, robust, fruity, full-bodied wines” that “in certain vintages” can surpass the more prestigious wines of its sibling, Gruaud Larose. Back in 1990, Parker tasted the vintage I recently drank, Talbot 1986, and had this to say: “It’s my gut feeling that the 1986 is simply the finest Talbot made at this vast 250-acre estate since the legendary 1945.” He expected it to live until 2020.

Well, I can vouch for the fact that the ’86 was alive and entirely enjoyable just a few nights ago, though I must say I don’t find myself agreeing with much else about Parker’s description of the wine (see his Bordeaux, page 311, for the details of that). My bottle was soft and understated, with all its fruit mutated into ripe, dark flavors of earth and leather, tobacco and dried plum. Very structured still, and long-finishing to be sure, with a little lingering thrill of pure vinosity at the end. Not a “today” wine, though: no big fruit or forceful alcohol, but instead balance and polish. Chateau Talbot is a serenely self-possessed wine.

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It was my very last bottle, alas! Every time I enjoy a rack of lamb now I will remember it and miss it. I could wish wines like this were as replaceable as lamb racks – but then, I suppose, they would lose the very qualities that make them special and memorable. I suppose that too is an old-fashioned sort of idea. If so – as the French would once have said – tant pis.

Wine Age, Our Age, Dotage

February 6, 2013

A pair of provocative articles, published recently by a pair of old pros whose work I respect and admire, Alfonso Cevola and Matt Kramer, questioned the value of cellaring wines nowadays. As one who dotes on the taste and complexity of mature wines, I was naturally intrigued by their consideration of the pros and cons – largely cons, it seems – of aging wines.

Matt KramerI’ve long thought Matt’s pieces almost the only thing in The Wine Spectator worth reading, and as long as I’ve known Matt I’ve known him to relish as much as I do the glories that mature wine can offer, so when I hear him saying that it’s hardly worth cellaring wine anymore, I pay attention. Here’s the core of his argument, in his own words:

In recent years it’s become obvious that an ever greater number of wines that once absolutely required extended aging no longer do.

Simply put, most of today’s fine wines—not all, mind you—will reach a point of diminishing returns on aging after as few as five years of additional cellaring after release. Stretch that to a full 10 years of additional aging and I daresay you will have embraced fully 99 percent of all the world’s wines, never mind how renowned or expensive.

He is careful to point out that this doesn’t mean today’s wines are better or worse, just different. He credits the difference to, or blames it on, the now-universal practice of green harvest (and also climate change, I would think), which assures (?!) a concentrated crop of perfectly ripe grapes nearly every harvest. That means that today’s wines are accessible sooner (by and large, I agree) and that they mature sooner, reaching their peak, beyond which they won’t improve, in five or ten years at most (here’s where I disagree). Again, I’ll let Matt speak for himself:

My hard-won experience with aging wines has now answered to my satisfaction the question about the absolute need for long aging; namely, that the great majority of wines today, in the great majority of vintages, don’t really reward that “expensive” extra five or ten years beyond the five or ten years of aging you’ve already bestowed.

I am now convinced that today’s wine lover is well advised to buy fine wines, cellar them in a cool space for five years—ten years, tops—and then drink them in secure confidence that the great majority of their full-dimensional goodness is available to you.

After that, it’s all just fantasy—and the very real likelihood of an increasingly diminishing return on your already delayed gratification.

CevolaTo this argument, Alfonso adds a stress on the subjective side: We too have changed. Our palates have changed – we want younger, fresher wines now – and we want to drink different wines than the kinds we stored away years ago.

I go into my little walk-in closet and look at all the things I thought would be important to drink in 10-20-30 years and I often find myself walking out and going to another rack of newer wines; fresher, lighter, unencumbered by the dust of time. Oops.

In looking over my little tribe of wines that huddle together in the closet, there are all kinds of strange bedfellows. What are all those sweet wines doing in there? Will it ever get cold enough to drink all the Port that has been gathered? Are those Super Tuscans really prettier when they age, or were they at their best when they were young and willing and tight and bright?

A lot of this is incontrovertible. Our palates and our desires do change over time. Not all wines, even under the best cellar conditions, cooperate by aging and maturing in an interesting manner. And winemaking most certainly has changed, and very dramatically, in ways that must have an effect on the age-ability of wines.

For instance: I recently tasted a very large number of classified growths of Bordeaux, vintage 2010, and found myself vastly underwhelmed. This is a vintage that Parker and others have hailed as great: I believe the Bordelais consider it the third “vintage of the century” so far in this young century. It is already remarkably accessible, compared to the initially tough but long-aging Bordeaux vintages of half a century ago, on which I learned my vinous ABCs.

Parker and others think 2010 will be very long-lived, because it has big tannins, lots of acidity, and pretty high alcohol (at least compared to vintages such 1955 and ’59, ’61 and ’62, ’64 and ’66 – my vinous elementary and high school). Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn whether 2010 Bordeaux ages well or not: I found most of the wines I tasted unbalanced and unintegrated (leading me to think that in fact they won’t age well) and – most damning for Bordeaux – inelegant, bordering on vulgar. These wines certainly show the effects of the green harvest that Matt talked about, and in a thoroughly deleterious fashion: not wines I’d want to keep around at all.

Maybe for many wines ripeness isn’t all? Maybe – for Cabernet sauvignon especially – ripeness can easily be overdone, and a little under-ripeness, with consequently initially tougher tannins and higher acidity and a lot less forward fruit, can be better? Vinous heresy for sure, and be careful who you say it to, lest you be declared pariah and driven out of your tasting club.

I’d certainly agree that there are many occasions on which I actively desire a younger, fresher wine. But that hardly means that there aren’t times when only a mature wine will do what has to be done: charm, seduce, overwhelm, overflow our sensory apparatus and our store of synonyms for great.

I’ve been putting wines away as long as Matt has. Many are from the ‘90s and before, but also with a healthy selection from the first decade of this century (especially from Burgundy and the Piedmont, the Veneto and Campania). Yes, over the years, a few bottles have disappointed, but many have been glorious – and the ones I cellared in the 1990s are doing just fine, thank you. I have equally high hopes for my wines from the first decade of this century: I just hope I’m still around to enjoy them.

MasiA few weeks ago, Diane and I shared a celebratory meal with old friends Betty and Livio at Danny Meyer’s Roman-style restaurant Maialino. To mark the occasion – two of us were turning 75 – I brought a 1986 Masi Amarone Campolongo di Torbe, which we decanted as soon as we were seated and drank about an hour later. I’m not even going to try to describe it, because its complexity was so great and so steadily evolving through the meal. It was, simply, a one-bottle proof of the wisdom of cellaring wine. I only wish I had more of it, and that I might live long enough to experience it at its peak. People do change, and wines do change – and many times, both are for the better.

There are still many kinds of wine that respond very well indeed to aging. Whether the 2010 bottles of Bordeaux will last 20 or 30 years, I doubt, and I’m not going to be around to find out – but I’m willing to bet that a large number of recent vintage Châteauneuf du Papes will, and an equally high percentage of Barolo and Barbaresco (Conterno and Mascarello are shoo-ins), Amarone and Aglianicos and even a few Sangioveses (Biondi-Santi! and Selvapiana’s Chianti Rufina Riserva Bucerchiale). I’m probably not going to cellar any of them myself, but that’s a decision based on the actuarial tables, not the quality of the wine.

Postscript, February 11:

selciaiaYesterday I opened a bottle that I had lost track of, 2001 Selciaia, a simple Rosso di Montepulciano from Fassati. I never meant to keep it so long, and I didn’t know what I’d find when I pulled the cork. I more than half expected it to be dead. Well, it wasn’t. In fact it was fine: mature and claret-like, very drinkable and enjoyable. Just goes to show: Some high-end wines can’t cut the mustard, while some simple ones age beautifully. It depends more on the combination of grape, vintage, and maker than any simple formula.