Archive for the ‘Cellaring’ Category

Tales from the Crypt

March 11, 2010

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.

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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.

. . . And Into the Closet

March 3, 2010

If, as I argued in my last post, the best reason to cellar wines is to revel in the marvelous flavors of wine at its mature peak, that leads to some basic questions. Do you need a literal cellar?  Which wines should you put in it? What conditions, minimal or optimal, do they really need to grow into the graceful adults that we want to drink?

Minimal conditions: My wine closet

Most of the wines that repay cellaring are reds – but not all of them, and not even always reds. Essentially, wines with good body and generous structure, especially with good acidity and sufficient grape tannins (from the grapes, not the barrels), benefit most from aging, and that description fits a lot of the world’s wines. 

The great estates of the Médoc and, to a lesser extent, some from St. Emilion and Pomerol on the opposite bank of the Gironde, were the first collectors’ wines and still remain the primary focus of connoisseurship. These are followed closely by the now-famous red Burgundies of the Côte d’Or, where some of the white wines – the grands crus Chablis, for instance, and some Cortons, Meursaults, and Montrachets – also develop beautifully in the bottle. By the mid-19th century, the great Rhone reds – Châteauneuf du Pape, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage – had joined the ranks of wines for laying down. Knowing wine lovers now also seek out the best growers from other Rhone villages, particularly Cornas and St. Joseph.  

In Italy, three noble red varieties produce wines that are notably age-worthy:  

  • From the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and other village wines of the Piedmont.
  • From Sangiovese, Chianti Classico Riserva, Brunello di Montalcino, and some Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
  • From Aglianico, Taurasi, Falerno Rosso Riserva, and Aglianico del Vulture.

Increasingly, top-flight Nero d’Avolas from Sicily also reward cellaring. Spain’s Vega Sicilia and its classically made Riojas are notoriously long-lived – but the traditional styles of the latter are, alas, increasingly hard to find.  

New-world wines – from California, the US northwest, Australia, New Zealand – are only now establishing a track record, so their ageability is hard to predict. Because of my European-oriented palate, I have experience primarily with more continental-style winemakers – estates such as Chalone, Montelena, Trefethen, and especially Ridge, almost all of whose wines I would happily cellar. I don’t drink Ridge’s Zinfandels, for instance, until they are 8 to 10 years old, when for my taste they are perfectly balanced and elegant. Its Cabernets I keep even longer.  

The biggest problem in storing wine is, simply, heat. Really excessive heat destroys wines in very short order. Ordinary household warmth won’t kill wines, but it will speed up their normal process of maturation. That, depending on the wine and your preferences, can be a good or a bad thing. If you are putting together a collection with the thought of leaving it to your children or grandchildren (or for re-sale; as Nero Wolfe would say, Pfui!), then you definitely need some form of climate control. On the other hand, if you’re buying wines for your own consumption, wines that you want to drink at their maturity, and if you’re brave enough to face the fact that you won’t live forever – well, in that case a little heat won’t be too bad. It will bring the wine around sooner, so you may actually get to enjoy some slow-maturing wines before you lose your palate or your wits.  

This past Christmas, I opened a bottle of 1989 Barolo Lazzarito from Vietti, which had been stored since purchase in my less-than-ideal domestic conditions. The wine was gorgeous, evolving absolutely classically, and at 20 years of age not yet at its peak. I don’t know about you, but 20 years is about the limit of my patience (and at this stage of the game, the outer limit of my life expectancy), so that works out fine, as far as I’m concerned.  

I’ve found that wines can survive in a New York City apartment. And if that’s so, then probably they might even thrive in your home, in a closet, in a spot where they are not jostled, and where the heat varies only gradually over the course of the year. That’s important, because sudden spikes in temperature, whether up or down, do seem to have seriously bad effects on wine. But basically, if you can live comfortably with the conditions, the odds are your wines can too – maybe not forever, but long enough for most of us.  

My domestic wine storage is effectively a compromise: the space available and the limits on my budget modify my otherwise uncontrolled desire to acquire. My home cellar is, simply, a broad, shallow, centrally located closet with diamond-shaped shelving. It’s rarely as cool as I would like (a fan helps in summer), but never preposterously hot, though most of the year it is certainly warmer than ideal. But the temperature changes only gradually, and the worst effect I’ve noticed is that some wines – not all, by any means – mature markedly faster in it than they would in an actual cold cellar.  

For wines that I want to hold longer term, I rent storage space in a huge old warehouse along the Hudson river – not designed for wines, not airconditioned, but comfortable all summer long, and moderately warm in winter. Again, such temperature changes as occur happen very gradually, and my experience has shown me that that is the most important factor in preserving and maturing wines.  

Most problems with stored wines arise from corks. Corking probably destroys more wines than bad storage ever did. The culprit is a fungus in the cork that grows with age and permeates the wine, so a young wine may be slightly corked and an older wine completely ruined, smelling and tasting of damp cardboard. Unfortunately, there is no way of detecting this problem until you open the bottle, when it usually makes itself painfully apparent.

The only remedy – and it’s not perfect – is the plastic-wrap treatment. Pour all the wine into a bowl, take a large sheet of plastic wrap, dunk it in the bowl, slosh it around a bit, and leave it there for 5 or 10 minutes. (The molecule that infects the wine is chemically akin to the polyethylene in the wrap, and it bonds to the plastic.) Then squeeze the wine out of the wrap, discard the wrap, and transfer the wine into a pourable container.  This procedure can make many apparently ruined wines drinkable, if not all that they would have been, so you get at least some small reward for your patience.  

On the other hand, when the cork is sound and the wine mature, the reward your patience reaps is enormous, and unmatchable any other way. Bear that in mind when you’re next buying wine. The stock market “wisdom” (Hah!) is “buy low, sell high.”  Wine wisdom is “buy young, drink old.”

Out of the Cellar . . .

February 23, 2010

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?