The most pleasurable aspect of wine is unknown to most consumers—the extraordinary complexity and beauty of wine that has been aged to maturity.
Wines that contain lots of flavor precursors, and the tannin and acidity to protect that flavor from oxidation, undergo chemical processes that produce a stunning array of entrancing perfume; and as the tannins soften and bond with other components, the texture becomes velvety soft with all components perfectly integrated. The result is always interesting and often transcendently exquisite—paradise in a glass.
Only a few wines will improve with age. Premium California Cabernet, Bordeaux Blends, Italian Borolo, Spanish Rioja, and Syrah from the Northern Rhone are among the wines that will age well. Some white wines—Chenin Blanc, well-made Chardonnay and Riesling—will also improve in the bottle. But it takes time, 5-30 years, for wines to reach maturity and knowing when a bottle is at its peak is an utter crapshoot. Storage conditions must be perfect or you risk opening an expensive bottle of vinegar; and bottles of wine develop as individuals with substantial bottle variation in wines from the same producer and vintage. In other words, you never know what you will get when the cork is pulled. The greatest virtue of a wine lover is patience, the second is the ability to suffer disappointment with grace.
The sage who said hedonists lack virtue was not a wine lover.
Unfortunately 95% of all wine purchased in the U.S. is consumed 1 week after purchase. Contemporary consumers lack the patience, fortitude (or storage space) to squirrel away expensive bottles for many years with an uncertain outcome, and thus they miss much of what wine has to offer. Thus, contemporary winemakers, taking their cue from the market, increasingly make wine designed to be consumed soon after bottling. It used to be that wines made for aging were tough and awkward when young. But thanks to vast improvements in the technology of winemaking, most wines today are enjoyable with just a little bottle age. As a consequence, a great debate has begun among wine experts about whether wines made today will age as well as the stalwarts from the past. Time will tell.
At the San Diego Wine Society meeting last week we opened 11 aged wines with reputations for aging well. How many could be described as “paradise in a glass?” I’m not sure any of them were quite paradisiacal but many were lovely and thankfully none were really disappointing.
The stars were not a surprise. The Graham’s Vintage Port 1983 was luscious, the coffee notes perfectly complementing the Tiramisu which was served for desert. And the Chateau Prieuré-Lichine, a 4th growth Bordeaux from Margaux lived up to its reputation as a solid, affordable classic with a plush, velvet texture and aromas of forest floor.
The surprises were the white wines. The Mabillier Vouvray Moelleux 1989 has developed almost bourbon-like characteristics—rich, soft vanilla flavors—set off by intriguing earth notes. The 1994 Alsace Pinot Gris had intense apricot flavors and bracing acidity, still very fresh and mouthwatering despite its 20 years. The two Napa offerings were mildly disappointing. Despite its price and reputation, the 1993 Duckhorn Merlot was enjoyable but inexpressive, the Talley Pinot Noir seemed simple and lacked the earthiness characteristic of aged Pinot Noir. It was perhaps past its prime.
Thanks to Solare in Liberty Station for their excellent meal and contributions to our wine selections.
The following wines were poured.
1. Loire: Mabillier Vouvray Moelleux 1989
2. Alsace: Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris VV 1994
3. Southern Italy: Aglianico Feudi di San Gregorio Serpico 2003
4. Bordeaux: Prieure Lichine 1993
5. Piemonte: Revello Barolo 1996
6. Spain: Muga Rioja Seleccion Especial Reserva 1998
7. Tuscany: La Rasina Brunello 1999
8. CA: Duckhorn Merlot Napa 1993
9. CA: Talley Pinot Noir Rincon 1996
10. Chateau Talbot 1990
11. Grahams Vintage Port 1983