Well-aged wine. The very thought of it stirs the spirit and whets the tongue. Older wine takes on a special character in our minds – not only has it been preserved over time, often lovingly tended by a patient caretaker, but it is a vestige of an era long past. It bears memories of the time when it was produced, the time when it was purchased, and all the time since when you’ve been waiting to enjoy it. There’s simply something special about old wine that captures our fancy in a way that new wine doesn’t.
Nor is this a modern preoccupation. Thousands of years ago, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah enticed the Israelites with a vision of the new world that awaited mankind at the end of time, saying “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” The passage of millennia has done nothing to lessen the power of that image. “Aged wine well refined” and “rich food full of marrow” – now that’s my kind of party.
Aging wine sounds good, yet the process of doing it can be intimidating. How can you be sure a particular wine will benefit from aging? Where should it be stored? When should you drink it? And on and on.
In last month’s column, I tried to share what I’ve learned about some of these questions as I’ve prepared to purchase a mixed case of wine to lay down for 25 years for my first child. This month, I’m going to get more specific by addressing one of the principle quandaries that can drive people cross-eyed: what kind of wine is really worth aging for two decades or more?
I’ll list some of the regions and grapes I explored in putting together my mixed case and say a few words about each. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list. I limited myself to 12 wines, which necessarily excludes some types that are well worth aging (Tokaji, the Hungarian dessert wine, leaps to mind). Nonetheless, sharing my limited experience may still prove some use to those setting out to age a bottle or twelve.
For some, red wine from Bordeaux (a small region around the Gironde and Dordogne rivers in Southwestern France) is the quintessential age-worthy choice. And for good reason – well made Bordeaux ages beautifully. Almost any Bordeaux, no matter how cheap or expensive, will benefit from a few years of bottle age. Which Bordeaux have the stuff to go the distance – say 20 years or more – is a more difficult question. The answer has to do with a wine’s vintage and producer. Thanks to differing weather conditions, some years are more likely to create marathon wines than others. Most agree that in the past decade, the Bordeaux vintages with the greatest and broadest aging potential are 2000 and 2005. Well made wines from both those years can be expected to possess more interesting and deeper flavors in 2025 or 2030 than they have now.
But before you prematurely pop the corks of all your 2004 and 2003 Bordeaux, consider that the producer also affects how long a wine can age. Even in less heralded years, Bordeaux made from certain soil by certain vintners can be very well equipped to last a quarter century or beyond. You can count on some prestigious chateaux (as wineries in Bordeaux are usually called) producing age-worthy wine in almost every vintage. Whereas the wonderful weather in classic vintages like 2000 and 2005 tends to spread the love a bit more, bestowing marathon wines on even less accomplished chateaux, normal vintages require more care in discerning which wines are well made enough to warrant aging.
Because 2005 Bordeaux is so expensive (due in part to media hype) and much of it is not yet on shelves, and since I trust the counsel of my local wine retailers, for my mixed case I selected one bottle from 2003 (Chateau Les Carmes Haut Brion from Pessac-Léognan) and two bottles from 2004 (Chateau Montrose from St. Estèphe and Clos Fourtet from St. Emilion). Although I prefer the subtler, earthier style of the cooler 2004 vintage to the richer, fruitier style of the hot 2003 vintage, I wanted to compare the two years after a couple decades of bottle age. And although I tend to prefer the cabernet sauvignon-based blends of Bordeaux’s Left Bank (where the soils of St. Estèphe and Pessac-Léognan are located) to the merlot-dominated Right Bank (where St. Emilion is located), I also wanted to compare these two regions over time. If you’re not sure which vintage or region you like more, splitting your bottles between them is a fun way to find out.
Below are links to their current sale items:- Refrigerated Wine Cabinets
Unlike red Bordeaux, red Burgundy has not been associated in the popular mind with age-worthy wines. Red wines from the Burgundy region in eastern France are made entirely of the pinot noir grape, which generally is not as well-suited for long aging as cabernet sauvignon. In Burgundy, the quality of the vintage, soil and winemaking matters far more to the aging question than in Bordeaux. Whereas in Bordeaux, even less impressive wines from great vintages and less impressive vintages of great wines can age well for 20 years, in Burgundy, only the very best vintages (or the uber-brilliant vintners and vineyards producing uber-expensive wines) are able to go the distance without losing a certain je ne sais quoi. But when it does age properly, old Burgundy can be among the most haunting of wines, so finding the right vintage is well worth the effort.
Among recent vintages, I recommend 2005. Although it’s a bit early to tell for sure (these predictions always require a fair amount of conjecture), all indications suggest that no other Burgundy vintage in recent memory has distributed such widespread quality and age-worthiness top-to-bottom, from the mightiest Echezeaux to the humblest Bourgogne Rouge. For my case, I selected two 2005s, both Premier Cru vineyards, one from Givry (Domaine Joblot’s “Clos du Cellier Aux Moines”) and the other from Chassagne-Montrachet (Chateau de la Maltroye’s “La Boudriotte”). Although it too is over-hyped and therefore expensive, 2005 Burgundy offers and unprecedented opportunity to taste age-worthy quality among the lesser regarded producers at a price that doesn’t require you to sell the farm.
Many wine drinkers don’t realize that German riesling is among the most age-worthy wine in the world. The riesling grape’s low rate of oxidation combined with the high levels of acidity produced by the German terroir results in wines that routinely improve with each successive decade of bottle age.
There are three basic types of non-botrytized (i.e. non-dessert) German riesling: Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese. Kabinett, whose grapes are picked the earliest, is the last ripe of the three styles. Typically, Kabinett rieslings are relatively dry. Auslese, whose grapes are picked the latest, is the ripest and therefore usually the sweetest of the three styles. While Auslese is sweet, it’s still fresh and crisp, not syrupy like most dessert wines. Spatlese is somewhere between Kabinett and Auslese. While you can age Kabinett with interesting results, Spatlese ages better, and Auslese ages best of all. Among German rieslings, as a general rule the riper the grape, the longer the wine can age, and the more nuanced the layers of flavors will become.
Below are links to their current sale items:- Refrigerated Wine Cabinets
Even if you don’t like sweet wines, you owe it to yourself to try a taste of 10 or 20-year old Spatlese or Auslese (particularly since these wines somehow taste less sweet over time). You may be surprised at how fresh the flavors are, and how well it goes with food. While at a nice restaurant in the Russian River Valley recently, an oenephile friend of mine splurged on a bottle of 1964 Auslese from Karthauserhof, one of the great producers of German riesling. He was skeptical that it would go well with the multi-course dinner, but because he loved Karthauserhof and 1964 was his birth year, he decided to give the wine a go. What followed was one of those supernatural experiences where the scales fell from his eyes, opening him to a wide new world of pairing aged German riesling with foods of all shapes and sizes. Auslese, especially when well aged, is not to be restricted to spicy dishes or the dessert course. Buy one and forget about it for a couple of decades, and you’ll see what I mean. 2005 is hailed by many as the greatest year for age-worthy German riesling in recent memory (since 1971, some say). As such, I picked up a bottle of 2005 Eitelsbacher Karthauserhof Spatlese for my case. I’m tempted to buy an Auslese also, given how well it ages. At the end of this process, we’ll see if I have the wallet (or if not, the gumption) to do so.
Here’s a wine whose aging potential is entirely unknown to most wine drinkers. Good wine from Vouvray – a tiny region in France’s Loire Valley that grows almost exclusively chenin blanc – can be enjoyed young but takes on fascinating secondary and tertiary flavors with aging. Some of the best examples, particularly those made in the demi-sec (semi-sweet) and moelleux (sweet) styles, can improve for half a century or more. I won’t recount the merits of Vouvray in any more detail now, because I’ve done that before. But it’s worth emphasizing that Vouvray’s lack of notoriety makes it one of the very best bargains among age-worthy wine. To illustrate the point, the bottle I’m laying down for 25 years (2005 François Pinon “Cuvée Tradition”) cost less than $20, a small fraction of what I had to pay for my Champagne or Port.
Many of us equate sparkling wine’s cold, crisp bubbles with youth and therefore don’t think to age Champagne. In fact, Champagne (and here I’m thinking principally of sparkling wine from France’s Champagne region, though I agree that age-worthy sparkling wine is produced in many regions) – particularly very good Champagne – evolves more in the bottle than perhaps any other wine. Some don’t like the bready, yeasty qualities that become more pronounced with age, but for those who do, it’s an experience found nowhere else in the wine world. In terms of laying Champagne down for several decades, it’s best to steer clear of the non-vintage stuff (drink those delicious wines early and often) and instead focus on the rarer Champagne from declared vintage years (e.g., 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002 – that these are all even years is mere coincidence). But which vintage is most age-worthy? Everyone’s talking about 1996. Sure, 2000 and 2002 are showing great promise, but 1996 may be the only truly classic vintage still on the shelves (most, but not all of it’s been snatched up by now – thank goodness for those producers that wait to release their wines for a decade or more after harvest!). Good Champagnes from 1996 are already exhibiting mature layers of flavor and texture, which will deepen considerably with time. If you can afford to buy and store a magnum, do so – Champagne’s high oxidation rate rewards the low air-to-liquid ratio found in large-format bottles. (Besides, what’s more fun than popping the cork of a 1.5 L bottle of bubbly?)
The most mouthwatering wine I’ve ever touched to my lips was a 1996 Dom Pérignon, which I enjoyed with my parents-in-law and wife around Christmas last year. The flavors were so vivid and multilayered that it was like tasting a multi-course meal with each sip. But, like most people, I can’t afford Dom. Instead, for my case I settled for a less expensive 1996 called Bruno Michel “Millésimé,” which came highly recommended from the Champagne buyer at a local wine shop. Notwithstanding 1996’s virtues, going with a more recent vintage would work too -- and would likely prove easier to find at a palatable price.
That’s enough for food for thought for now. Next month I’ll review the other five kinds of wines that I selected for my unborn child’s mixed case. Meanwhile, happy hunting – whether for one bottle or many – and please don’t hesitate to share with me what you’re learning in your search for age-worthy wine.