On a warm Tuesday in June, my wife Emily gently told me she thought she might be pregnant with our first child. We hadn’t planned this, and I was having trouble adjusting to the idea. The next evening I was eating Chinese food, and when I opened the fortune cookie, I decided to interpret the fortune in light of whether Emily was pregnant.
The little slip of white paper read, “Teamwork wields excellent results.” Nothing could have been clearer (assuming, as I did, that the fortune meant to say “yields”), and I resigned myself to my fate. Sure enough, the following day the first pregnancy test was positive. As was the second. And the third. But by then I was excited, and now we wouldn’t have it any other way.
What’s all this to do with wine? Simple – for wine enthusiasts, one of the great advantages of expecting a child is that you have a bona fide excuse to buy a case of really good wine to lay down for 20+ years. What’s more, for trigger-happy, instant-gratification types like me, the intention of giving the wine to my child when he or she attains drinking age, and the possibility of enjoying it with him or her 25 years down the road, provide a powerful incentive against succumbing to the temptation to dip into the stash early, which too often happens with other wine I’m trying to age. And if self-policing doesn’t work, my wife’s always around to lay down the law (“Hands off the baby’s wine!”).
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But laying down wine for a couple of decades is not all peaches and cream. Many concerns arise (what kind of wine should I buy? from what year? how do I know it’ll be good in 20 years? how should it be stored? how much will this cost?), and often by the time an expectant parent wades through all the issues, it becomes apparent that while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. I’m a serious wine geek and quite committed to the idea of picking the perfect case of wine for my son or daughter, but even so, I fatigue just thinking about the task of finishing off my half-filled case.
It strikes me that if I had at my disposal a few rules of thumb for guidance, this process would be less daunting. So as long as I’m going through the effort myself, why not share what I’m learning? Over the next two columns, we’ll discuss some of the basics to consider when laying down wine, and then we’ll explore some of the wine regions and vintages that I’ve learned are (or are not!) good candidates for aging 20+ years.
One Wine or Many?
There are at least two kinds of cases you could put together for your child. First is the classical method – 12 bottles of the same wine. This method makes for an easier project, because you need only to find one wine that you’re confident will age well, that you like, and that fits your budget. It also allows your child to sample the wine you’ve selected over and over again, and to discover how the taste changes year after year. As an added bonus, most shops will give you a 10 to 20% discount when you buy a whole case of a single wine. And a complete case of a single wine is a handy investment vehicle, easily sold at a wine auction or over the internet.
On the other hand, you may not be keen on your child selling off the carefully selected and painstakingly preserved case you gave him. You might prefer he drink it, perhaps even with you. The second method – buying a mixed case (12 bottles of up to 12 different wines) – mitigates this concern, as it’s neither as easy nor as profitable to sell individual bottles of wine on the open market. Although it takes more time and effort to assemble, a mixed case affords an opportunity to taste a variety of aged wines. There are so many wines out there that only realize their full potential after decades of bottle age that it seems a squandered opportunity to restrict yourself to a single varietal, vintage, vintner, and cuvée. (Why settle only for Bordeaux when German riesling is so brilliant after 20 years of aging?) Another advantage of the mixed case method is that it doesn’t require you to put all your eggs in one basket. What if you’re (or the person advising you is) wrong, and the wine you spent so dearly for peaks years before it’s opened? With an unmixed case, you’re cooked; with a mixed case, you just open another bottle.
If you can’t decide which method to follow because you want more than one bottle per wine but you also like the idea of variety, then compromise: select four wines and buy three bottles of each. The rule of thumb is: consider the options, and go with whatever combination suits your fancy.
A Question of Vintage
Whether you do a mixed or an unmixed case, there are at least two approaches to deciding what year or years of wine to seek out. One is to select wines from whatever recent vintages seem especially promising – say, a 2000 Bordeaux, a 2003 Port, and a 2001 Rioja. The advantage with this method is you’re less limited by a particular year, and it’s easier to put together the best possible case of wine for aging.
The alternative approach ties itself to the vintage of the baby’s birth – if your child is born in 2007, you only pick wines from the 2007 harvest. This is nice, because the vintage itself takes on a special meaning. But it limits your options. And more pertinently, it requires you to put the case together a few years after the baby’s birth (because many wines, including most of those worth aging, aren’t released for purchase until several years after harvest).
On the other hand, it means that even if your child has already been born, you’re not behind the curve if you’re just beginning to embark on this project. In short, there’s no wrong move here: it’s a question of timing and taste.
To Give or to Share?
Most parents put a case together to give to their child as a gift on her 21st birthday or some other special occasion. But what if your kid doesn’t appreciate wine? This happened to a friend of mine – he gave his daughter a case of very nice wine on her 21st, and she promptly sold it for a very nice profit. Not exactly what he had in mind. Some parents deal with this by giving the case to their child if and only if he turns out to be a wine enthusiast (or at least shows a modicum of interest in the stuff). Both of these plans are fine, so long as you’re ok with their potential consequences (the wine never enjoyed in the first case, the gift never given in the second).
I want to give my son or daughter not the gift of bottles of wine, but the gift of an experience of wine. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I want to experience the wine too! So when our child turns 21, my wife and I plan to show her the wines we’ve saved since her birth and to make plans to drink them with her at shared dinners over the next few years. For this reason, I’m selecting 12 different wines – from 8 to 10 different regions – for my case. We’ll experience the wines together, learning about various grapes, regions, vintages, and winemakers and sharing a privileged glimpse into the global landscape of fine, aged wine. If that doesn’t turn disinterest into appreciation, nothing will. And if it fails, at least I got to taste some really good wine!
The rule of thumb here is: think about why you’re laying down this wine, and shape the gift accordingly.
What to Choose?
This is where things get dicey. With so many wines out there, which should you select? And how can you know that it’ll last 20 years? Even among connoisseurs, this can be difficult business. The truth is that not all wines age well. Each wine has a life cycle – it gets better for a while, then reaches its peak and plateaus, and finally starts to decline until it descends into a vinegary shadow of its former self. This life cycle is short for the majority of wines, which tend to be made for immediate consumption or at least to be drunk within a couple of years. Although it takes a long time for wine to go bad, it doesn’t take long for the taste of most wines to pass its peak and begin deteriorating. That said, there are many wines that age gracefully, growing in depth and complexity as the years go by, and only reaching their peak after decades. The trick is finding them.
Whether a particular wine will benefit from being laid down for a long time is always a function of its grape(s), its region, its vintage, and the way it was made. There are some rules of thumb that are useful here: Bordeaux tends to age well; so does Sauternes, Barolo, Barbaresco, German Riesling, Vouvray, Tokaji, Vintage Port, Brunello di Montalcino, Burgundy, Rioja, and New World Cabernet. Likewise, certain grapes age better than others: nebbiolo, riesling, and cabernet sauvignon, to pick a few. The weather in certain regions during certain years promises that some vintages are especially likely to produce age-worthy wines: 2005 Burgundy, 2001 Sauternes, and 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, for example. And the longstanding success of high-end cuvées like Ridge's Montebello and Domaine Romanée-Conti’s La Tâche shows that some special winemakers almost always produce wines that will improve over time.
But these rules are general by nature, and they frequently break down. I learned this the hard way. Wanting to taste older wines without dropping major cash, I successfully bid (offering the hefty sum of $25) on a 1975 Malescot St. Exupéry, a famous 3rd Growth estate in the Margaux region of Bordeaux. I opened it up with two wine tasting buddies, and we were sorely disappointed. The wine was dead – it smelled of must and nothing else, it tasted like sipping mildly fruity dust, and its muted flavors evaporated on the tongue as soon as they appeared. 30 years of bottle age is nothing for many Bordeaux; and 1975, while not the greatest vintage ever, resulted in some age-worthy wines. So what happened? In this case, I think it was the winemaker. I read later that notwithstanding its historical pedigree, Malescot St. Exupéry’s winemaking methods had fallen into disrepair, and only in the mid-1980s did the estate undergo a renaissance that raised the quality of its wine to the level of its reputation.
So what to do when selecting your twenty-year case? Consulting vintage charts helps; so does reading vintage reports, tasting reports, and other articles. But once you have a general sense of the regions, grapes, and vintages that, on the whole, are age-worthy (or even if you don’t), the best thing to do is to trot into a good wine shop whose staff you trust and ask them for recommendations. They’ve tasted the wines they’re selling, and they’ll have a good idea which 2001 Barolo will improve in 20 years and which will have already peaked by then. Request multiple suggestions per category of wine, and bring pen and paper to take notes. Ask what the wine tastes like now and how it will probably taste in a quarter century. If you don’t like the description, move on – there are too many brilliant, age-worthy wines out there to waste your money on something that doesn’t sound good. And don’t be afraid to reveal that you have budget and to stick to it. Although it’s true that wines of this caliber tend to be fairly expensive, with some effort you can find some good options for around $30 per bottle.
If you’re doing a mixed case, you may be tempted to buy all 12 bottles in one shop in order to take advantage of a case discount. But be careful. Most shops have an excellent selection of certain regions and only a limited selection of others. If you’re working on a budget, as I have been, you’ll find that the deeper the selection of wines in a particular category, the more likely you are to find wines that fit both your palate and your price range. (A tip: if the savings with a case discount would be substantial, consider purchasing as many wines from that shop as you would have without the case discount, and then fill out the remainder of the case with inexpensive wines – you may find, as I did, that the extra wines pay for themselves!)
A Word About Storage
So you’ve purchased your case and brought it home. One more issue needs to be addressed: where will you keep it? Wine isn’t especially finicky about temperature level, so long as it stays within a reasonable range (roughly 40 to 68 degrees). But what matters immensely is stability – wine responds badly to temperature fluctuation. Store the wine in a relatively cool place in your house or apartment that doesn’t get especially hot in the summer (or when the heater is on) or cold in the winter. The back of a closet in a room without much sun exposure is a common option. If you live somewhere that sees extreme weather (basically anywhere that requires you to run the AC regularly), consider purchasing a wine fridge, which will ensure that your investment isn’t damaged over time. And if you change residences, try to find a solution besides entrusting your wine to movers, whose trucks are rarely temperature-controlled. Wine stored in extreme or volatile conditions will lose a good bit of its complexity at best, and go completely bad at worst.
We’ve covered some of the basic issues that arise in the process of laying down wine. The next thing to do is to get down to the nitty-gritty. I’ll share what I’ve learned about which regions, vintages, and estates are – and are not – especially good candidates for aging for 20+ years. But this article is already too long, so we’ll save the fun stuff for next month’s column. Until then, à votre santé!