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Confessions of a Wine-Collecting Lifer
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 4, 2011
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As we begin the new year, I’ve become a touch nostalgic, and I’m looking back on how I’ve spent my life.  One passion that stands out is wine, and I’ve examined how it has influenced my life.  For the past 40+ years, I have been collecting wine. 

As a young adult (and struggling teacher) bitten by the wine bug, I confess that I started spending an inordinate amount of my income on wine, much to my then-wife’s chagrin.  It got to the point that I had to sneak my newly acquired wine into the house when she was working (I know quite a few wine collectors can identify with this ignominious behavior). 

And by the way, why are so many wine collectors of the male gender?  Perhaps women are too practical to spend their money on wine (preferring clothing, handbags, and shoes)? 

Yes, wine collecting was an obsession.  I think I’ve got it under control now.  It has dawned on me that I can’t drink all of my wine in my lifetime (I have 3,000+ bottles), and so, these days, I’m drinking more than I’m buying. 

But I also must confess that not many other things in life have given me as much pleasure as collecting wine.  I still get a charge out of going down to my cellar and selecting a perfectly mature wine for dinner.  And that of course is the main reason to collect wine:  So that you can enjoy a (hopefully) great wine that has developed completely, which you bought for a fraction of its current worth many years ago.

My family never drank wine.  Beer was my dad’s favorite beverage.  I never could drink more than one beer at a sitting; it filled me up.  Then I got engaged to an Italian-American woman whose family drank wine.  I realized very soon that wine was for me, both on a sensual and intellectual level.  I found the fact that all these different wines came from so many parts of the world amazing.  I set out to try as many different wines as possible.  I bought a couple of wine racks, and before I realized it, I had become a wine collector. 

I read every book and magazine article about wine, took my first wine course (from the late Alex Bespaloff, even then a noted wine writer), and found my favorite wine merchant, Bernie Fradin of Quality House in NYC, who became my mentor.  Bernie was legendary in New York, one of the few merchants who really knew and loved wine.  Bordeaux was Bernie’s favorite wine, and it became my favorite, as well.  Bernie also introduced me to Krug Champagne--not that well-known in the U.S. then--and Krug also became a lifelong obsession of mine.

Prices in the 1970s were ridiculously low by today’s standards; I remember buying First Growth Bordeaux wines for $12.  I then discovered Burgundy, and quickly came to realize that buying Burgundy, both red and white, was a much trickier proposition than buying the more consistently reliable Bordeaux. 

My wine collection expanded to Northern Rhône reds; like my colleague, Michael Franz, Guigal’s wines were a revelation.  Next came California reds: Ridge and Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignons won me over.  I remember how good Shafer’s first Cabernet, 1978, was!  I was an early convert of red Zinfandel, especially Ravenswood and Ridge.  I also treasured the late Joe Swan’s wonderful Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels, and a lesser-known Zinfandel called Green and Red. 

As my palate changed with age, I lost my passion for Zinfandel.  I’m still pursuing the holy grail that is Pinot Noir, and am happy to occasionally come across an excellent Sonoma Coast or Oregon Pinot.  I was an early convert of Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs.  Hartford Court’s ’07 Far Coast Pinot Noir sent chills up my spine.  I’m also a huge fan of Littorai’s Pinot Noirs--in fact Littorai was my Winery of 2009 on WineReviewOnline.   I was thrilled that Jon Bonne has just named Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines his Winemaker of the Year in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

I rounded out my wine collection with some Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese wines, some Alsace wines (especially Rieslings) and lately, some Greek wines. 

I no longer collect Bordeaux and Burgundy for several reasons; the really good Bordeaux and Burgundy wines are too expensive.  In the case of Bordeaux, I have more than enough to last for the rest of my life.  I know that 2005 and 2009 Bordeaux reds are great, but I doubt that I’ll be around when they finally mature.  I don’t have enough red or white Burgundy, but I’m enjoying what I have left, especially some great Chablis.

My two great passions in wine during the past couple of decades have been Italian wines and Champagne.  I discovered the great Piedmontese reds-- Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera--in the 1980s, and have championed them in my wine writing since then.  But I love many Italian wines; part of it arises from my love affair with Italy itself.  My latest Italian fascination is with the wines of the cool Mt. Etna region in Sicily.

Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for Champagne.  I even presumed to give myself the Twitter moniker of EdChampagne.  When I visit friends for dinner, I always provide the Champagne.  Suffice it to say that my three largest collections of wine in my cellar are Bordeaux, Barolo, and Champagne.  That kind of sums up my primary wine interests, past and present.

Wine collecting is not as massive an undertaking as you might think.  First of all, you need a cool, preferably damp, place to keep the wine.  If you live in an apartment, you can buy a wine cave, and just plug it into an outlet.  Secondly, you can rule out collecting well-over 90 percent of the world’s wines.  I’m talking about the inexpensive, mass-produced “beverage” wines that are meant for current consumption.  Most of these wines retail for $12 or less.

Thirdly, you can concentrate on collecting only the wines that you really like.  I knew a man who collected only six Bordeaux brands; that’s keeping it simple!  I’ve simplified my wine buying lately; two out of every three wines I buy nowadays are either Barolo or Champagne--especially the latter.

I will finish my treatise on wine collecting by passing on some tips about what wines to collect, or not collect, based on my experiences:

FRANCE

Red Bordeaux: Very collectible, especially if you are younger than 50.  Red Bordeaux from a great vintage, such as the current 2005 and 2009s, is an excellent basis for building a wine collection.  Very sturdy wines.  I have tasted 100 year-old red Bordeaux wines that were still alive and wondrous.  And even if you are not a millionaire, you might still be able to afford excellent Fifth-Growth or Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux.  In my experience, Left-Bank Bordeaux, such as those from Pauillac or St.-Julien, live longer than Right Bank Bordeaux wines (with the exception of a few very expensive Pomerols, such as Château Petrus or Château Lafleur).

Bordeaux Blanc, Sauternes:  There are just a few collectible dry, white Bordeaux wines that have great aging capacity-- such as Haut-Brion Blanc, Laville Haut-Brion, and Domaine de Chevalier Blanc.  On the other hand, many excellent Sauternes are available, if you’re into dessert wines.  I own them, but seldom drink them.

Red Burgundy: I love them, wish I had more, but buying Burgundy is always risky.  Their aging curve can be very uneven--certainly more so than Bordeaux’s.  Red Burgundy requires top storage conditions.  The most reliable, such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leroy, are extremely expensive.

White Burgundy: I should have bought more white Burgundy when they were more affordable, but that was a long time ago.  The best buys are Chablis.  Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chablis are very collectible; they age surprisingly well.  I’m drinking 1996 and 1998s now; most are still superb, but a few are tired.  Buy the excellent 2008 Chablis wines now. 

Beaujolais:  Only the sturdier Cru Beaujolais--such as Moulin-à-Vent, Julienas, and Morgon--can age well, and then only in very good vintages.  Buy from recommended small producers.  Surprisingly affordable.

Northern Rhône:  Hermitage, Côte-Rotie, and Cornas continue to be the most long-lived Syrah wines in the world.  White Hermitage also amazingly age-worthy. 

Alsace:  Rieslings have proven to be great values.  Long-lived, and they improve with age.  I especially enjoy the dry style, such as Trimbach’s Cuvée Frédéric Emile.  Trimbach’s Clos Ste. Hune is one of the best dry white wines in the world, but difficult to find.  Other Alsace producers specializing in dry Rieslings include Paul Blanck and Léon Beyer.

Loire: The dry white wines from Savennières area of Anjou are clearly the best dry Chenin Blanc wines in the world.  They can age and improve for 20 years or more in good vintages; concentrated and intensely flavored, with strong mineral character.  Very reasonably priced.

Champagne:  From great vintages, such as 1988 and 1996, Champagne can age extremely well.  I’m drinking 1988s now; most are glorious, a few are still a bit young, and a few are showing age.  Most 1996s are still too young to drink now.  Blanc de Blancs Champagnes are among the best agers.  Most Rosé Champagnes are best consumed when young (with the usual exceptions: Krug, Cristal, and Dom Pérignon Rosés). 

ITALY

Piedmont:  Barolo and Barbaresco in good vintages can age for 50 years or more (good recent vintages: 2006, 2004, 2001, 1999, 1996).  The two “big B” wines of Piedmont, with all their tannin and acidity, demand aging (10 to 15 years minimum)  before you can fully appreciate them.  Gattinara and Ghemme, from northern Piedmont, are two Nebbiolo-based wines that are somewhat lighter and less expensive, nor do they require as much aging time as Barolo and Barbaresco.  Carema, a lighter Nebbiolo wine from northwest Piedmont, has surprising aging ability; look for Luigi Ferrando’s Carema.  Barbera, the wonderful everyday red of Piedmont, has the advantage of youthful readiness plus some (10 to 15 years) aging ability.  But it doesn’t possess the complexity of the Nebbiolo wines.  Dolcetto, Piedmont’s other popular everyday red, is best when it’s two or three years old.  Don’t age it (exception: Chionetti Dolcetto di Dogliani can age well for five to eight years).

Tuscany:  Brunello di Montalcino is Tuscany’s great, long-lived, collectible wine.  Look for 2004 Bruellos, a great year for this wine.

Rest of Italy:  In Campania and Basilicata, look for wines made from Aglianico, Southern Italy’s long-living great red variety.  Taurasi is the exceptional red wine made from Aglianico in Campania; check out Mastroberardino’s, Terredora’s, and Feudi di San Gregorio’s Taurasi wines.

Three white Italian wines stand out for their longevity and complexity, but the first two of the three I mention here are difficult to find (making wine collectors desiring them even more, of course).  The late Edoardo Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is clearly the best and most long-lived wine made from the Trebbiano variety in the world.  And yes, it gets better with age; in 2010, I tasted a 1990 Valentini Trebbiano that was stunning; look for Valentini’s long-lived 2005 Trebbiano.  Carricante is the superb white variety growing on Mt. Etna’s high slopes in Sicily.  The best current example of this variety is Benanti’s 2005 Carricante, “Pietramarina.” It should live for 20 years or more, but it can be consumed now.  An outstanding, minerally, high acid example of a cool-climate white wine.  Silvio Jermann’s 2006 Vintage Tunina, from Friuli, is a blend of five different varieties, and a tribute to the winemaking genius of Jermann.  Vintage Tunina needs about 10 years of aging to develop, and can age well for 20 years or more.

SPAIN

Ribera del Duero:  The legendary Vega Sicilia and Pesquera are the two outstanding, long-lived red wine houses from this region.  Their wines are both based on the Tempranillo variety.

Priorat:  An old region, newly discovered, Priorat is producing long-lived, complex red wines based primarily on old-vine Garnacha and Carignan vines.  Alvaro Palacios is the pioneer, and his Priorat is one of the best coming from this region.

Rioja:  Many great producers are in Rioja, but none make more traditional, longer-lived Riojas than R  Lopez de Heredia, with its Viña Tondonia Rioja.  Also, this producer’s white Rioja lasts as long as its reds!

PORTUGAL

Vintage Porto is as collectible a wine as there is.  It’s indestructible, demands aging and decanting, and can live up to 100 years in good vintages.  Tawny Ports, especially Colheita (vintage-dated) Ports, also are quite long-lived. 

But Portugal produces a fortified wine that’s even longer-lived than Vintage Porto--Madeira, made on the island of the same name.  The oldest wines in my cellar are Vintage Madeiras, a few going back to the early 1800s.  The problem is that old Vintage Madeiras are now rare and expensive.  When they were first made available in the U.S. about 40 years ago, they were selling for about 10% of what they now cost.

Portugal is now producing a number of dry red table wines in the Douro Valley that are made from the same grape varieties as porto.  The most famous of these wines is Barca Velha, made only in great vintages by the Ferreira port house.  It’s long-lived and complex, and improves with age.

HUNGARY

Tokaji Azsu is the legendary dessert wine of this country, made primarily from the local, white Furmint variety.  Tokaji Azsu at its best vies with Madeira as the world’s longest-lived wine. 

CALIFORNIA

The most collectible, long-lived wines from California are made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, and are mainly from the Napa Valley (exception: Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains).  A few of my favorite Napa Cabernets and Cabernet blends include Chateau Montelena “Estate,” Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel, Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard,” Mayacamas, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23,” Opus One, Rubicon, and Spottswoode Estate.  Plus one outstanding Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Laurel Glen “Estate”--perhaps the best bargain in the bunch.  I have purposely left out several Napa Cabernet Sauvignons that sell for $300 to $1,000.

AUSTRALIA

This country’s famed, outstanding red wine is Grange, made primarily from Syrah--known in Australia as Shiraz.  Grange is a world-class wine that can age and improve for several decades.

That is my roundup of some of the world’s most collectible wines.  One obvious omission from my listing is German wines, many of which age remarkably well, especially the Rieslings.  But I’ve never really collected German wines.  I do hope that this has been helpful and that I have not left out any of your favorite wines.  I wish all of my readers a wonderful 2011.