Know when a wine is peaking

by Jim Gordon

Only a small percentage of the world’s wines get noticeably better with age, but those that do are worth the wait. Drinking an age-worthy wine at its peak of perfection is something no wine drinker should miss.

My wine-aging epiphany happened with a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild from Bordeaux that friends shared with me in the mid 1980s. But I’ve enjoyed similar experiences many times since then, and with wines that cost much, much less.

Certain wine types of the world, like red Bordeaux and white Riesling from Germany have proven their ability to evolve--become more interesting and complex in flavor as they get older--without deteriorating. Sometimes they’ll go for more than 100 years, such as the 1870 Chateau Lafite Rothschild I got to taste on another occasion.

A more practical example is a case of 1994 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon worth $35 a bottle that I bought new when it was released in 1998. I have been popping the corks on this wine at the rate of about two bottles per year since 1999. It’s a taste pleasure as well as an intellectual exercise of sorts to follow its evolution. It has gone from powerfully fruity and sweetly oaky in flavor and quite firm and tannic in texture, to more mellow in flavor, with what’s called bottle bouquet replacing the straightforward aromas of a young wine, and with more intricate, spicy-perfumy flavors and a milder, easier-drinking texture.

The lesson here is that a wine doesn’t have to be super-expensive or super-old to show the benefits of aging. It has to be the right kind to start with, and has to be kept in a good, cool storage area that’s as close to 55 degrees year-round as you can manage or afford.

Here’s a look at several types of wine that might be worth aging, and when you should drink them.

The red wines of Bordeaux are the gold standard of age-worthy wine. Made largely with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the warm, southwestern corner of France, they seem to have an inherent ability to age well. Vintages vary significantly here, but the best years will produce $100 and up wines that improve for 20 years or more, $50 wines that improve for 15 years or more and even $18 wines that will evolve interestingly for five or more years after their release.

California Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends:
I’ve never really bought the Francophile’s claim that California wines don’t age. Because in the 1980s I had the chance to taste 20-year-old, 30-year-old and even 40-year-old Napa Valley Cabernets that were in great shape and delicious to drink. This doesn’t mean you should save the $9 fighting varietal wines with “California” appellations on the label, but most $20 to $200 Cabs from Napa Valley, Sonoma County and a few other spots will get more interesting with at least three to five years mellowing after release. And the best will be even better than those oldsters I drank almost 20 years ago.

Red Burgundy and US Pinot Noir:
Some red Burgundies age beautifully, but unless you buy a blue chip like Domaine de la Romanee-Conti it’s a gamble. Even more so with American Pinot Noirs, which usually don’t have the combination of acidity, tannin and concentration to carry them forward in time. Red Burgundy worthy $30 a bottle or more is safe for three to five years, but I would drink most of your U.S. Pinots within a year or two of release while they’re still too tasty to pass up.

You rarely find the magic happening in an old Zinfandel that happens rather regularly with a nice Bordeaux. Basically you can drink them on release and for a couple of years afterward. After 10 years in proper cool storage they won’t turn bad, necessarily, but the odds are against them becoming more enticing than when they’re young.

Tuscan Reds:
Many of them are too new to be certain, but most are inherently structured to age. The proven types include Brunello di Montalcino and the early super-Tuscans like Tignanello and Solaia. All these can benefit from 10 years or more in a cool cellar.

Rhone Reds:
Not as high profile as Bordeaux, but certain subcategories of wine from this French region have great track records for aging. Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage and Cote-Rotie are three of the top Rhone districts (appellations) to look for when you want a wine that shows its best stuff after 10 or more years.

German Riesling:
A great white wine with which to experience the benefits of age. The best types are the richer, often sweeter styles such as ripe Spatlese, riper Auslese and super-ripe Beerenauslese. Even Spatlese can improve for several years, and super-concentrated Beerenauslese can go for decades.

Chardonnay and White Burgundy:
The best wines for aging are often the most tight and tart when young, including French Chablis, the various Montrachets and Meursault from Burgundy, which in the $50 and up range can get better for five to 15 years. A few American and Australian Chardonnays are also quite age-worthy, but they’re not necessarily the ones that get the highest ratings. Look for the older wineries, like Hanzell and Far Niente from California.

Real vintage Port from Portugal is virtually ageless. Aficionados today are still deciding whether their 1963s are too young. So these are slam dunks for the cellar. A very good vintage from a very good label can easily improve for 25 years.

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