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The Alchemy of Wine: A Reason to Cellar
By Michael Apstein
Apr 5, 2011
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In years past, when marginal weather often failed to ripen grapes adequately, winemakers rejoiced in the relatively rare years when Nature provided ripe fruit flavors.  These days, with delayed harvesting, modern winemaking and global warming, it’s easy to get fruit in a wine.  Indeed, all too often today’s wines are too fruity and one-dimensional. Take for example most Argentine Malbecs, which verge on alcoholic fruit juice.  Quality in wines such as these is determined almost solely by the degree to which they are forward in their fruitiness--because they show almost no other characteristics. 

Wine’s Ability to Morph with Age Makes It Unique

Thankfully, however, wine is distinguished from other beverages by its potential for undergoing a transformation--almost akin to alchemy--in which simple fruit flavors give way over time to other nuances such as leather, coffee, leaf, or damp earth.

All winemakers start their work with fruit, and good young wines have plenty of appealingly ripe, succulent fruit flavors.  But great wines, even when young, tantalize you with something else.  It’s hard to describe precisely what that “something else” is.  Some call it minerality, others earthiness.  The near magical transformation of fruit to non-fruit flavors that occurs with extended bottle aging may be hard to describe, but it is impossible to miss.   

Hard to Define, but I Know It When I See It

The precise description is vague, and is clearly based on personal experience.  “Earthy,” means something to me, but not to the Chinese.  Simon Tam, Christie’s newly appointed Head of Wine, China, is writing tasting notes directly in Chinese rather than translating them from the English for that reason.  “Earthy is meaningless to the Chinese, but the aroma of sugar cane juice conveys a sense of the wine,” explains Tam.  This hard-to-articulate “something else” reminds me of what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.” 

A Challenge and Not Today’s Fashion . . .

Relatively few wines have the ability to undergo this transformation. With bottle age, many wines just lose their fruit and charm and become dull.  Those that are capable of the magic require years or decades of proper storage.  Add today’s fashion of, “I want it now” and it’s understandable that more and more wines are consumed when young, even those few that could evolve if given the chance.  Bob Harkey, owner of Harkey’s Fine Wines, one of the Boston area’s best retail wine stores, reminds me, “95% of all wine is consumed within 30 minutes of purchase.”  He’s exaggerating, I’m sure, but he’s probably not far off.

Be that as it may, it is precisely this near-magical development that makes wine fascinating so it’s worth the effort.  No other beverage evolves over time.   

Three Ways to Obtain Mature Wines

In the past, when the grand wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were more affordable, restaurants would buy young wines, store them properly and put them on their wine list when they had matured and were ready to drink.  These days, it’s a rare restaurant that has aged wines on the list at affordable prices, although a few exceptions still exist (such as Buckhead’s Chop House outside of Richmond and Anthony’s Pier 4 and Troquet in Boston).

The Auction Market

The burgeoning auction market in the United States allows consumers to buy mature wines without the trouble of aging.  The large auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s and even smaller houses such as Skinner’s in Boston, have wine sales.  Retail stores, such as Zachy’s and Acker Merrall & Condit, have auction divisions as well.  Although news reports would have you believe that the auction market is confined to the speculators and wealthy around the world (e.g., Acker Merrall just sold a case of Jayer’s 1978 Richebourg for $210,000 in Hong Kong), it is actually an excellent venue for normal consumers to buy wines they intend to drink.  

Do It Yourself by Looking Beyond Grand Cru

It’s a serious mistake to assume only the Grand Cru Bordeaux and Burgundies from the greatest vintages are suitable for aging and development.  Red Bordeaux from the much-overlooked 1981 vintage have developed beautifully.  Many of the so-called Petit Chateau or Cru Bourgeois from the highly acclaimed 1982 vintage, such as Chateau Greysac, have made the magical evolution.  I am certain that the 2005 Chateau Greysac and other “minor” Bordeaux from the equally great 2005 vintage will provide similar enjoyment two decades from now.  Consumers would be wise to scour shelves of large retail stores whose wines are stored under good temperature control or the pages of auction catalogues for Greysac-like gems from the 2005 vintage.  Their prices will look positively cheap compared to the 2009s and soon-to-be-marketed 2010s.

It’s no surprise that Grand Cru Burgundies from the top growers and négociants develop marvelously with bottle age.  Less well appreciated is how many red Burgundies with lesser pedigrees, such as village or even regional wines, develop with proper storage.  A few years ago I served blind a 1985 red Cuvée Latour, which carries the lowly Bourgogne appellation, to a group of Burgundy aficionados, including representatives of Maison Louis Latour.  No one identified the appellation and all were astounded at how terrifically complex and balanced this 20-plus year old “simple” Burgundy had become. 

I’ve had many 20-plus year old village Burgundies from Maison Louis Jadot, another top Burgundy négociant, that remind me not to ignore this category when selecting wines for the cellar.  I urge consumers to search the auction offerings for less prestigious red Burgundy offerings from the 2005 vintage--clearly one of Burgundy’s greatest vintages for red wine.  Now is the time to start looking for the red Burgundies from the 2009 vintage, another fabulous year for red Burgundies and a year that produced many superb wines with unimpressive appellations. 

Will High Alcohol Hinder Aging?

Some California Cabernets, such as Beaulieu Vineyards’ George de Latour Private Reserve, Robert Mondavi’s Reserve, Grgich Hills and Ridge’s Montebello, to name just a few, have consistently made the magical journey from youthful to mature flavors.  The balance, suaveness and layers of flavors found in these wines from the 1970s and 1980s continue to dazzle and remind us why the Napa Valley must be included in any listing of places that are home to exceptional wines.  Will the same be true of the 15-plus percent alcohol current releases?  Who knows?

But the ability to develop flavors with bottle age is not expressed solely by a number, but rather by balance.  I’m a vociferous voice against high alcohol wines because the alcohol often throws the wine out of balance and you feel the brandy-like heat in the finish.  But high alcohol alone doesn’t disqualify a wine from developing with age.  Just look at Amarone.  These 15- and 16-percent alcohol wines develop magnificently.

The wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape routinely weigh it at 14-plus percent alcohol.  Nonetheless, those from Chateau Beaucastel, La Nerthe, or Vieux Donjon, to name just three, from the best years in the 1970s and 80s have developed gorgeous secondary aromas and harmonious texture with bottle age.  This part of the Rhône has been blessed with a series of excellent vintages since the turn of the century (except for 2002), so consumers should have no trouble finding candidates for the cellar 

Australia’s Barossa Valley is not known for low alcohol wines.  Yet, a 20-year retrospective of Peter Lehmann’s Stonewell Shiraz showed how wonderfully the wines had developed.  Although the 1989, the standout at that tasting and considered to be one of Australia’s all time best wines, had a stated alcohol of only 12.5 percent, the measured alcohol was 13.7 percent, according to Ian Hongell, Lehmann's Senior Winemaker.

Not for All Tastes

Not all consumers like aged wines.  I’ve put young fruity California Pinot Noir on the table side by side with mature Burgundy at Thanksgiving and watched the Pinot Noir be drained while my wife and I have the Burgundy to ourselves.  Clearly, many prefer the vibrant fruit qualities that young wines offer. 

So why do I champion more mature wines?  Because they provide unique flavors and uncommon texture and complexity lacking in young wines.  And if we as consumers only keep raving about the “gobs of fruit” in the next “killer Cabernet,” we’ll all be drinking alcoholic fruit juice.

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Your thoughts?  E-mail me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com