Any regular readers of this column know that my wife, Emily, is pregnant with our first child. Upon hearing this news in June, I promptly began preparing to lay down a case of wine to enjoy with my unborn son 25 years down the road. Two months ago, I wrote about the process of aging wine – how to select it, where to store it, when to drink it, and so forth. Last month I delved into the all-important question of which wines are worth aging by cataloguing five of the wine categories that made their way into the mixed case I put together. This column finishes that project by reporting on the four remaining categories of wine I’ve chosen for my son’s case. In so doing, hopefully I’ll lend some help to others who are searching for wines to put away for a special occasion.
It’s essential to emphasize, as I have before, that the wines that follow are by no means the only ones worth aging. Lots of wines that will improve for 25 years and beyond – including Barolo, Tokaji, Madeira, and some California Cabernet – don’t appear in these columns due to limited time and resources. If I tried to explore every age-worthy wine out there, I would be the happiest homeless man you’ve ever met. With a baby on the way, it seemed wisest to restrict myself to 12 bottles and pay our rent.
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The three greatest – and most age-worthy – Italian wines all start with the letter ‘B’: Brunello di Montalcino (from Tuscany), and Barolo and Barbaresco (both from Piemonte). Among these, the wine that is the most obvious choice for long-term aging is Barolo, which comes from the small region that surrounds the town of the same name in the highlands of northwestern Italy. So I went in search of the perfect Barolo to lay down for a quarter century.
I didn’t find it. I expected that a Barolo from the most recent critically acclaimed vintage – 2001 – would fit the bill. But in talking to folks in the trade who knew Italian wine, I learned that although 2001 was an excellent vintage, it lacked the kind of structure and acidity that forms the backbone of a wine that will improve over a few decades. Some 2001s might still be drinking well in 2030, I was told, but it’s not a sure bet.
Instead, I was encouraged to invest in a good Barbaresco. Like Barolo, Barbaresco hails from a small eponymous region in Piemonte and is composed entirely of the Nebbiolo grape. Nebbiolo is a varietal that begs for patience due to its high levels of acidity and tannin. Although some Nebbiolos are made to be drunk young, the more complex and robust varieties like those from Barolo and Barbaresco are built for the long-haul. Drinking one soon after release can sometimes be a disappointing experience – the tannins are obtuse and unforgiving, the acid puckers the mouth, and the fruit flavors are uneven. But the passage of time resolves these conflicts, resulting in deep, rich, structured layers of candied orange, leather, earth, and red fruit. A good, well-aged Piemonte Nebbiolo is a truly unique experience in the wine world, one well worth pursuing.
Barbaresco is sometimes overlooked when it comes to conversations of age-worthy wines, lying as it does in the shadow of its better-known brother Barolo. But a lot of people – including myself – like Barbaresco better, because it is often more accessible. And from the right vintage, in the hands of the right winemaker, Barbaresco can easily keep pace with Barolo in a test of durability. I purchased a single-vineyard 2004 Sottimano Barbaresco whose fruit derives entirely from a plot of land named Currà. The 2004 vintage is one of great promise in Piemonte, and experts predict long-life for the top Barolo and Barbaresco from that harvest. While 2004 Barolo has not yet appeared in most wine retailers, 2004 Barbaresco from the best producers are just starting to trickle into shops.
How much really old Syrah have you had? Among wines from the United States and Australia – the two most common kinds of Syrah found on American retail shelves – it’s exceedingly rare to find any Syrah designed to be drunk much beyond 5 or 10 years. But France’s Northern Rhone Valley has made producing age-worthy Syrah a pastime. Principle among the Syrah-dominated appellations of the Northern Rhone is Hermitage. Although Crozes-Hermitage, St. Joseph, Cornas, and Cote Rotie can likewise be aged to advantage, it’s the prestigious (and expensive) Hermitage that is the King of Rhones in this regard.
I haven’t had the privilege of drinking much Hermitage – it simply costs too much (rare to find one for under $60). But those that I have tasted have been impressive. Two recent examples should suffice to make the point. At a tasting of some ridiculously famous wines, the 1998 Charpoutier “Ermitage” was the consensus best wine of the tasting, beating out a whole table of First Growth Bordeaux from the 80s and 90s and other heralded names like Dujac, Peter Michael, Kistler, Stags Leap, Heitz, Shafer, Pride, and Penfold’s Grange. At a tasting of 2004 Northern Rhones the other day, the Chave Hermitage was my favorite. It had a rich fruit core that kept going and going on the palate, but the fruit was beautifully balanced with earth and spice that gave the wine a real sense of place. It was delicious then, but you could tell that the true complexity of the wine would only reveal itself after several decades. Unfortunately, it retailed for over $200, which tells you something about the kind of capital outlay required to enjoy an Hermitage of exceptional reputation.
The Hermitage I chose was well under that price tag, but it comes from an excellent producer, Domaine Belle, who makes very solid wines at every level (Belle’s Crozes-Hermitage, which cost roughly one-eighth of the price of the Chave Hermitage, came in second at the tasting). The 2001 vintage was excellent in the Rhone, creating wines of rich fruit and heavy tannin that take years to unwind but reach remarkable heights once they do. If you’re looking for a Rhone to age, a 2001 will serve you well. Among more recent vintages, good options include 2005 for Northern Rhone and 2004 for Southern Rhone wines.
Here come the dessert wines. Some will say we’ve saved the best for last. That isn’t usually my attitude, as I generally prefer dry wines to sweet. But few wines are better suited to long aging that Sauternes and Port.
Sauternes is a small appellation in the Southwestern part of France, near Bordeaux. The wine is made from the white Semillon grape, and its sweetness comes not from fortification with brandy or any other external source, but from the grapes themselves. Grapes in Sauternes hang on the vine until the boytritis cinerea virus causes “Noble Rot” – a shriveling that concentrates sugars and flavors in the grapes – to set in.
The result is a wine that is sweet without being sugary. I’ve heard it said that when taking a sip of Sauternes, instead of tasting syrup, you taste sunshine. I like that description, because it gets at what is so distinctive and brilliant about Sauternes – both rich and delicate, supple and earthy.
Sauternes’ complexity deepens substantially as the years pass. What can sometimes taste like a relatively simple, if pleasurable, dessert wine in its youth takes on secondary and tertiary flavors to compliment the orangey hue lent by time. Some say that Sauternes can only really be appreciated after several decades of aging allows it to reach its full potential. True or not, there’s no doubt that old Sauternes is among the greatest delicacies of the wine world.
Until the 2005 vintage, 2001 was the gold standard for age-worthy Sauternes. Some say that 2005 will surpass 2001, but the jury’s still out. One thing is certain – both vintages are very expensive. That’s one of the reasons I chose for my case a 2004 Chateau Doisy-Védrines, which came in at a very palatable $35. Another reason is that most 2004 Sauternes have a more delicate character that isn’t present in riper years like 2005 and especially 2003. As someone who values nuance over power, that’s the perfect fit. But by its very nature, Sauternes in most any vintage is well worth laying down. .
Ah, Port. Those who have developed a taste for this rich red wine fortified with brandy are in little need of convincing that nothing quite caps off a meal like a cordial of Port. On a cold winter night, propped in front of a fire, there are few drinks I like better.
Notwithstanding its popularity in many quarters, a fair amount of confusion surrounds Port’s various styles. To explain it all would take a column of its own, so instead I’ll make two points of clarification that are crucial to the question of which kind of Port is worth aging for a quarter century.
First, like Champagne with a capital ‘C’, Port with a capital ‘P’ only comes from Portugal. Many other regions – California principle among them – make fortified wines of various kinds, most of which tend to go by the name “port.” But don’t be fooled – these non-Portuguese ports can’t be trusted to age for long periods of time. Why? A wine’s ability to age well can be estimated from objective characteristics (grape type, tannin and acidity levels, vintage, etc). But at the end of the day, the only way to know with any confidence that a wine will be better in twenty years than it is today is by observing its track record over time. The Portuguese have been making Port for centuries; and wine drinkers have been fawning over fifty-year of bottles of the stuff for nearly as long. New world Port knock-offs just haven’t been around long enough, or haven’t been drunk late enough, to know how they’ll stand the test of time. What’s more, whereas detailed regulations require that all Port be more or less composed and crafted in the same fashion, no such rules govern all non-Portuguese ports – so if one port tastes great twenty years from now, you have no surety of knowing that another port will likewise age well. I didn’t want to use my son’s case as a guinea pig, so I steered clear from anything outside of Portugal.
Second, Port comes in a variety of styles, including (in ascending order of quality) Ruby, Tawny, Late Bottle Vintage, 10-year, 20-year, 30-year, and Vintage. You won’t like to hear this since it’s at the top of the list in terms of quality and therefore cost, but Vintage Port is the one kind of Port that has surefire long-aging potential. All Ports above the Ruby and Tawny level are worth aging, but none of the others age like a Vintage Port, which from the best vintages continue to improve for over 40 years. In this context, “Vintage” simply means that all the grapes come from one particular year’s harvest – whichever vintage appears on the bottle. Big deal, you might say – that’s true of most wines. But Port houses don’t produce a Vintage Port every year – far from it. Only the very best harvests become “declared” vintages, which means you’re guaranteed a high level of quality – and age worthiness – in any Vintage Port you buy.
But not all declared vintages are created equal. The best in recent memory is 1994. Ports from that vintage will age exceedingly well, but are exceedingly expensive. Among more recent vintages, 2000 and 2003 are good options. I recently had the opportunity to taste six or seven 2003 Vintage Ports. They were big, powerful wines – too overpowering for my tastes. But with time, they’ll mellow, their balance will increase, their flavors will integrate, and what now feels like a punch in the face by a prize fighter will, down the road, disarm you with a deft, delicate touch you never thought possible from such an brute. How far down the road, you ask? We tasted a 1983 along with the 2003s, and it wasn’t anywhere near ready. The 2003 Taylor Vintage Porto I bought for my son is estimated to peak around 2050. I think we’ll save that one for my grandson’s 21st birthday.
Well, that’s it. Next month I’ll be back to my old tricks, unearthing some of the lesser known wine regions of France. I hope you enjoyed our excursion into the world of high-end, age-worthy wine – a world that I rarely visit, and whose dialect I’ve not yet mastered. I’ll check back with you in 25 years to report on whether my son’s case was a success. From the calisthenics he’s doing in his mother’s belly, I can tell he’s as eager as I am to find out.