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Drinking Mature Wine
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 1, 2013
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There are two kinds of wine: the ones that you drink as soon as you buy them, and the ones that you should save until they develop and mature, the so-called “fine wines.”  The first group undoubtedly makes up over 90 percent (perhaps over 95 percent) of all wines sold, at least in the U.S.  Certainly just about any wine that retails for under $20 a bottle would not be in the fine wine category

I am focusing on fine wines in this column, the ones that really need time to develop to reach their optimal, prime time for drinking.  These include many types:  The better red and white Bordeaux; red and white Burgundy; Northern Rhônes; certain Loire Valley wines; German and Alsace Riesling; from Italy Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico and others; California Cabernet Sauvignons; Champagnes; and certain dessert wines, such as Vintage Porto, Sauternes, Vintage Madeira, and German dessert wines.

For me, drinking a fine wine that has become fully mature is the best sensual experience that wine can give us.  And that’s especially true when the wine is accompanied by excellent, complementary food.

I have found that many wine drinkers in the U.S and throughout the world--with the possible exception of England, where wine lovers are in the habit of ageing fine wines--drink fine wines much too soon.  No big deal, you say?  To me, it is a big deal.  I want to enjoy the wine (that I have often paid a goodly sum for) at its best.

The biggest candidates for wine infanticide might be fine Champagnes.  How many of us have consumed great Champagnes, such as Krug, Roederer Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Veuve Clicquot  La Grande Dame, etc. the same day we buy them, and feel vaguely cheated because the Champagne was “nothing special”?  Even most non-vintage Champagnes--not only Krug Grande Cuvée, but many others--improve with a few years of aging.  As for Cristal, Vintage Krug, and Salon, I would not touch such premium Champagnes for at least 15 years from the vintage, and even longer in great vintage years. 

Cuvée Dom Pérignon, the most popular fine Champagne, is another prime example of our need for patience.  The Dom really doesn’t show much when it is first released.  This dumb phase might last for three to eight years, depending upon the vintage.  But time will do its magic to the sleeping beauty. 

One of the little-known facts about Champagne, by the way, is the extraordinary longevity of Chardonnay in the Champagne region.  For this reason, Blanc de Blancs Champagnes often last for decades (Salon and Krug Clos du Mesnil are key examples)--much longer than Blanc de Noirs Champagnes.

Once Champagne (and all wines) develops and begins to mature, it will show well for many years before it begins to decline.  Of course, the greatest factor in delaying the decline of all fine wines is cool storage.

Some wines last many decades before they begin their decline.  Red Bordeaux and Sauternes are two examples.  I have been collecting Bordeaux wines for most of my adult life, and I have seldom consumed a bottle that was past its peak.  In the better vintages, Bordeaux simply goes on and on.  Even when I open a vintage Bordeaux such as 1970, which is regarded as a good, but not a great vintage, I am constantly surprised to find that the wine is still in fine shape, 42 years later!  The famous 1982 vintage Bordeaux is still great for many of the best Classified Growths, although 1982 has proved to be not so long-lasting as expected, as some 1982s have grown tired.  As for the current Bordeaux vintages, I would put my money on 2005 as an exceptionally good bet to be a long distance runner, developing and improving into the mid-21st century.  And 2010 Bordeaux (more so than 2009) shows signs of being a top, long-lived vintage as well.  Time will tell about 2010’s future for Bordeaux.

Sauternes is one wine that definitely needs many years to show its true greatness.  In its first decade, it is just too sweet, at least for my palate.  But with the years, as the color turns a deeper gold and into amber, it magically becomes a complex, delicious wine, an extraordinary taste experience.  And Sauternes, in the good vintages, has exceptional long life, sometimes drinking well with over 100 years of age.  In short, they outlive us! 

Bordeaux Blanc, Sauternes’ dry cousin, also can improve for decades, especially the great wines, such as Haut Brion Blanc, Laville Haut-Brion, Domaine de Chevalier and Pape Clement.  But one nice aspect of white Bordeaux is that you can enjoy it when it is young, thanks to its Sauvignon Blanc component.  Although, for me, the wine shows so much more complexity as it ages, thanks to the Sémillon component found in most of the top Bordeaux Blancs.

One of the fascinating aspects about Burgundy that I have discovered is that great white Burgundies will age as long (and sometimes longer) than red Burgundies.  This fact was not generally known because few wine lovers ever saved white Burgundies.  But, as in Champagne, the Chardonnay grape can often outlive Pinot Noir.  The white Burgundies that have shown the greatest longevity, of course, have been the renowned Grand Crus, such as Corton-Charlemagne and the Montrachet family.

Unlike Bordeaux, Red Burgundy has the virtue of showing well when it is youthful, although it is definitely on another level when it matures.  Generally, red Burgundy will not last as many decades as Bordeaux, but many Burgundies have obstinately defied the odds and proven this statement wrong.  For example, the red Burgundies of such producers as Leroy, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Henri Jayer, to name three of the best, apparently last for many decades, at least in the better vintages.  Speaking of vintages, the great vintages for red Burgundy have been 1990, 1978, 1969, 1964, and 1959--with 1990 probably not living as long as expected, and 1978 living forever!  Of the current vintages, 2009 seems to be the super year for red Burgundy.

Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Cornas are three Northern Rhône wines that need time to develop, and can be magnificent with age.  Syrah at its best (Hermitage and Cornas are 100 percent Syrah; Côte-Rotie at least 90 percent Syrah) vies with Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the finest, long-lived, noble red varieties.  Anyone who has tasted the superb Grange wines of Australia already knows that.

Great vintages in the Northern Rhône include 1990, 1989, and 1978, with the 2009 and 2010 showing promise in the younger vintages.   In the Southern Rhône, the best Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines can also show greatness (in the better vintages) as they mature.  White Rhône wines make up a small part of Rhône Valley wines, but Hermitage Blanc (especially those from the great producer, Chave) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc can live as long as their red cousins, and are immeasurably finer when they have matured.

In Italy, all the great, long-lived wines begin with “B”:  Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino.  All right, a couple of “As” as well:  Amarone and Aglianico.  Barolo and Barbaresco, both from Piedmont, share the same grape variety:  Nebbiolo.  This variety reminds me a great deal of Pinot Noir, because both grapes are very site-specific, and grow best in very limited areas.  Also, both are much more delicate than other noble red varieties; they must be stored well in very cool places, if you plan to keep them for a while.  Recently, I’ve tasted many Barolos in the 30 to 60 year-old range (from good vintages) from friends’ cellars, and too many of them were showing too much age.  I’m fairly certain that the problem was storage or questionable provenance, because I have tasted many older Barolos that have been magical.  The same is true for Barbarescos. 

For older Barolos and Barbarescos, you are safer with the renowned producers, such as Giacomo or Aldo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello, Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Bruno Giacosa, Gaja, Vietti,  Ceretto, or Marchesi di Gresy.  And especially seek out the classic Piedmont vintages, such as 1999, 1996, 1989, 1982, 1978, 1971, and 1964.  The vintages of the past decade that show promise are the 2001, 2004, and 2006.  Barolos from 2001 and younger need lots of aeration; decant them for as much as three hours before pouring.

Brunello di Montalcino, the great Sangiovese wine of Tuscany, is as majestic as Barolo, and can age equally well.  Like Barolos, Brunello typically needs at least 12 years of aging to mature.  Great older Brunello vintages include 1997, 1988, 1985, 1971, and 1970.  In the past decade, look for 2006, 2004, or 2001.  Modern Chianti Classico does not age so well as in the past; most are best when consumed within 10 to 15 years.  But 1988 and 1985 were excellent older vintages for Chianti Classico.

And we should consider the best super-Tuscan wines--some mainly Sangiovese, others mainly Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and some a blend of these varieties.  They age well for 30 or more years, and do improve with ageing.  My favorites include Ornellaia, Masseto, Le Pergole Torte, Cepparello, Percarlo, Sassicaia, Solaia, Tignanello, Sammarco, and I Sodi di San Niccolò.

Other renowned Italian wines that definitely develop and improve with ageing:  From Campania in southern Italy, the great Taurasi, made from Aglianico; the renowned producer is Mastroberardino.  And from Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast in eastern Italy, the wines of the esteemed producer, Edoardo Valentini.  The Trebbiano d’Abruzzo of Valentini is one of Italy’s great white wines, and undoubtedly the world’s best wine made from Trebbiano.  Valentini also makes a great red, a state-of-art Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and a superlative dry rosé, Cerasuolo (from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo variety) that ages for at least two decades.

The best California Cabernet Sauvignons, especially those from Napa Valley, have proven to age well, and in many cases improve with age.  Such producers as Beaulieu Vineyards (with its Georges Latour Private Reserve), Joseph Heitz (with Martha’s Vineyard), Robert Mondavi, Chateau Montelena, Mayacamas, Ridge Vineyards (Monte Bello Vineyard from Santa Cruz Mountains), Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Inglenook, and Simi have made legendary, long-lived Cabernet Sauvignons (the last two producers, with wines from the 1930s and 1940s). 

Well-stored Cabernet Sauvignons from 1991, 1974, 1970, and 1968 from many of the California producers I listed are still showing well.  In general, lots of California’s producers today have not been around too long, and do not have a track record.  But I think you can still rely upon producers such as Ridge Vineyards, Mayacamas, and Chateau Montelena to make exceptional, long-lasting Cabernet Sauvignons.

Finally, a word about two long-lived after-dinner wines, Vintage Porto and Vintage Madeira.  Both seem to be indestructible, especially Madeira.  Some wine drinkers can enjoy Vintage Porto young: I am not one of them.  However, I do love Vintage Porto when it is well-aged and has tamed down a bit.  In any case, if you do have occasion to drink a Vintage Porto less than 20 years old, do decant it (all Vintage Porto, regardless of age, must be decanted because it has lots of sediment), and aerate it for about eight hours, so that it will soften.  Vintage Porto has enjoyed a number of fine vintages during the last decade: 2009 (superb), 2008, 2007, 2004, and 2003.

Vintage Madeira, made in such a process that it seems to live forever (I have tasted examples from the American Colonial days, in the 18th century) is a living monument to the greatness of mature wine.  Unfortunately, the phylloxera louse wiped out many of the vineyards in the early 20th century, but Madeira is making a comeback.  You can still acquire Vintage Madeiras from the 19th century and early 20th century.  Considering their scarcity, they are a bargain, compared to the price of other older wines.  There are five major varietally-named Vintage Madeiras, the drier Sercial and Verdejo, and the richer Terrantez, Bual, and Malmsey.  Vintage Madeiras are aromatic and complex, and have the longest finish on the palate of any wine.  A real treat.  Store them standing up.

This topic is endless, and I must end this over-long column, although I haven’t touched the wines of the Southern Hemisphere and some renowned white wine regions.  But I hope that you get my message:  Drinking fine wines when they reach their maturity is an incomparable sensual experience.