The pleasures of older wines.
By Louis Marmon
Washington DC Examiner February 26, 2009
I prefer “Chinatown” to the “The DaVinci Code,” “On The Waterfront” over “Gladiator” and will drop everything to watch “Casablanca.” Angelina Jolie certainly has her attributes but Ingrid Bergman has a vulnerable sadness. Older movies have a captivating elegance and charm that is often lacking in the more recent Hollywood blockbusters.
A similar satisfaction can be found in various older wines. Most wines are currently being produced in a fruit-forward fashion and are crafted to be consumed within three to five years of bottling. They may have a complex flavor profile, good balance and be food-friendly, but most are not really intended for the long haul. That doesn’t mean that they are not enjoyable. On the contrary, the quality of contemporary winemaking has improved dramatically during the past decades and the resulting wines are often delightful.
However, aged wines undergo profound changes. Much like autumn leaves that lose their dominant green to reveal vibrant colors underneath, older wines can transform from a fruit-forward orientation to something more subtle with diverse flavors. Sometimes these changes are not pleasant; the wines have become tired and faded, clearly past their prime. But those with sufficient body, acidity and fruit can become truly ephemeral over time.
An unexpected benefit of the economic turndown is the appearance of more mature wines in the market. Collectors are selling their cellars and distributors are emptying their warehouses to raise cash. Diligent wine buyers can find fully mature bottles on retailer’s shelves often for much less than the cost of the label’s current vintage.
But beware. There are inherent risks with older wines. One needs to be cautious before spending large sums on older wines unless you have high confidence in the wine’s provenance or the seller is willing to return your money if the bottle is bad. To avoid expensive vinegar while foraging shelves and discount bins, keep away from leaking capsules and low bottle fills since these will usually indicate improper storage conditions. If the price is low enough, you can take a chance on distressed bottles and hope that the wine will be drinkable. Ultimately, it’s a crapshoot since even a pristine bottle may mask a deteriorated wine.
The first wines that collectors usually sell off are the sweet and fortified varieties such as Sauternes, which develop a deep golden brown color as the residual sugar, spice and other flavors integrate. The supple Chateaux Rieussec 1988 has honey, caramel, pear and lemon custard flavors with a lush finish of apricot and spice. German dessert wines are another often overlooked pleasure. The perfectly balanced August Kesseler Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese Rheingau 1999 exhibits crisp apricot, orange and honey notes along a tight frame of spice and
Vintage port can be a big brooding beast, requiring 20 or more years of bottle age before reaching its potential. The floral Fonseca Guimaraens Port 1987 is packed with mouth-filling cassis, licorice and dark fruit extending into a rich long ending.
And if you’re looking for relative bargains, check out less-heralded vintages, such as 2003 Burgundies. I spotted a number of reasonably priced gems recently at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill in Washington (cellar.com). A recently opened bottle of blueberry- and slightly smoky cherry-scented Thierry Beaumont Chambolle Musigny Les Chabots 2003 was drinking beautifully with lush, soft black cherry, earthy red berry and spice notes along with a long silky finish.
Several mature syrahs from Northern Rhone have also begun to reappear on the market. The appellations Cote-Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas produce wines of great character that can age for years without losing their underlying power and grace. The Guigal Brune et Blonde Cote Rotie 1986 has the classic aromas of bacon fat, pepper and black olive leading into deep flavors of dark currants, boysenberry, vanilla and sage.
The 1996 and 1998 Bordeaux and California Cabernets from the 1990s are now showing well as are older examples. Upon hearing of Robert Mondavi’s passing last year — at the tender age of 94 — I opened a Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1987 to celebrate his lifetime achievements. It still had terrific currant- and cedar-laced black cherry, vanilla and plum flavors. And the soft tannins in the 1985 Bordeaux not only allowed them to be enjoyed early but also allowed some of them to hold up well over the ensuing years, such as Chateaux L’Eglise Clinet 1985, which still possesses lovely black fruit and earthy mineral notes.
Ultimately, wine is about moments; its vintage encapsulated in the bottle as well as the point in time that it is opened. Drinking an older wine mergers history with the present to create a new occasion. The spicy caramel, violet and nutty orange flavor of an 1860 Vintage Blandy’s Bual Madeira transports President Lincoln right into the room. Make history of your own by opening an older bottle with friends and enjoy a sense of the past.