One of the benefits of surviving youthful excess, war, marriage, physical infirmities, children and several decades of stressful living is that I have accumulated several cases of older wine. As a matter of fact, I continue to collect wines which I feel are age-worthy, despite the real prospect that these bottles will outlive me. Some folks get wiser with old age. I just get more wine! While others were acquiring life skills, maturity, wealth and the wisdom that is evidenced by graying temples, I acquired….. more wine.
Over the years, I have experienced both the ecstasy of sipping liquid nirvana, and the agony of having to discard a wine “too long in the tooth.” It can be a wonderfully pleasurable experience when you uncork that special bottle of wine you’ve allowed to languish for a decade or two in your cellar. Conversely, the experience can be tremendously unpleasant when the stuff from that coveted bottle smells like sewer gas and tastes like slightly spoiled witch hazel with nuances of mold. Yes, aging wine with the hope that it will morph into something sublime is risky, but to me it’s worth the gamble. Why? Well, I have been fortunate to have had more good experiences than bad and, believe me when I say that the good experiences are usually wonderful.
In the past year, I have been uncorking some of these older wines and, for the most part, have been very pleased with the results. One particular bottle, a 1978 Borgono Barolo from the Piedmont area of northwest Italy, was a real treat and a shining example of what can result from the appropriate aging of wine. In its youth, Barolo is a purple monster with huge dollops of mouth-puckering tannin and searing acidity which can completely mask the earthy and dark fruit flavors hidden underneath. In the past decade, some Barolo producers have been making wines which are more approachable in their youth. But wines made in the old-world style, like the ’78 Borgono, sometimes need decades to reach their potential.
Before opening the wine, I set it upright for two days to make sure that the sediment (which surely had formed over 29 years) would settle to the bottom of the bottle. I then carefully decanted the wine into a crystal carafe and was immediately concerned by the color of the brownish-orange liquid that came out of the bottle. Fearful that the wine had gone over the hill, I quickly poured myself a glass and, with a great deal of trepidation, put it to my nose for the first big test. What emanated from glass was redolent of damp earth, tack-room leather and teaberry mint. Next, I put the wine in my mouth and the first impression was its silky texture followed by a cherry/cola-like flavor with just a hint of caramel. Delicious!
I had planned on pairing the wine with a roasted meat dish, but, because of the Barolo’s delicate condition, I decided to sip it with a cheese course right after dinner. While this was a wine worth waiting for, I plan on drinking the remaining two bottles over the next six months because I’m fearful it is on the downside of its peak, and is declining pretty quickly.
So how can you determine which wines to lie down for aging and which to drink right away? Obviously, you’ll want to collect wines that have the best chance of being transformed into something more pleasurable as they age. That means buying wines such as Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley and Burgundy in France along with California Cabernet Sauvignon and Barolo, Barbaresco or Brunello Di Montalcino from Italy. You might also consider collecting Shiraz from Southeastern Australia and even Chardonnay from Burgundy.
These are among the most common “keepers” wine lovers collect, but you can experiment with other varietals too. For example, I am a believer that Zinfandel from Amador County in California’s “Gold Country” has the potential to age well. I’ve also had good luck with Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and late harvest Riesling and Gewurztraminer from Alsace.
Another absolutely essential element in determining the aging potential of a wine is to pick the vintage years that have been touted as exceptional. For example, wine experts have declared that both the 2000 and 2005 vintages in Bordeaux are spectacular and age-worthy. Likewise, the 1997, 1999 and 2001 vintages in Tuscany for Brunello Di Montalcino are considered exceptional and age worthy too. My advice is for you to check out the charts which rate the vintages for the major wine-producing regions. You can find these vintage charts in wine publications and online
Keep in mind that aging wine also requires a cool, humid, dark, vibration and odor-free environment. It doesn’t need to be a fancy wine cellar, but it should meet the above-mentioned requirements so that your wine will have the best opportunity to reach maturity in good condition.
Until then, wrap your lips around a glass of ready-to-drink wine while both you and your special bottle mature.