I rummaged through my cellar to find an interesting wine to bring to dinner with friends visiting from Washington on Saturday. The experience offers some lessons in the rewards and pitfalls of aging wine.
The first one I pulled out was my last bottle of Château Lynch-Bages 1978. This was a favorite, and I have enjoyed it immensely over the years. This bottle was shot, however—oxidized and acrid.
(As I have mentioned before, when I bring a bottle for dinner that needs decanting, I pull the cork and decant it at home, returning the clear wine to the rinsed-out bottle to transport. This avoids shaking up the sediment en route, and allows me to taste the contents before it’s too late to find an alternate.)
Now, 32 years is a long life to ask of any bottle, but a fifth-growth from a very good vintage should still be alive and kicking. This one wasn’t tainted by the cork, but it still was the victim of a cork that didn’t do its job. It had not sealed the wine, and too much air had gotten through, rendering the wine just as undrinkable as if it had been rife with TCA.
My next option was another member of the single-bottle club: Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Jimsomare-Monte Bello 1981. This was a bit of a long shot, but I figured it would be of interest to the people we were meeting—Hugh and Kathy Shiels and their daughter Kerry, who own DuBrul Vineyard and make the outstanding Côte Bonneville Cabernet in Washington’s Yakima Valley.
The Ridge was never meant to age 29 years. On the back label, winemaker Paul Draper suggested drinking it within five years, “although it should be fine for dinner tonight,” the label added. “Tonight” would have been 25 years ago. I pulled the cork and poured. My decanter filled with the aromas of ripe fruit. I took a sip. Sound, even supple and elegant. Hot dog, I thought, this was going to be fun.
At Frances, chef Melissa Perello’s new casual restaurant at the edge of San Francisco’s Castro District, Hugh pulled out a bottle of Côte Bonneville 2002, his first vintage. We had dueling Cabernets on the table.
We tried the Bonneville first. The ’02 is not as ripe and rich as some of the succeeding vintages, but it always had impeccable balance. Comparing it now with my original notes, it has become silkier in texture, losing some youthful tannins, and the hint of red pepper that I noticed early on had evolved into a savory, dusky note that’s quintessential Cabernet. My original note said drink through 2015. No problems there. It’s only now reaching its best years.
I especially like the crispness and polished texture of this wine against Perello’s semolina gnocchi with duck confit and braised cavil nero, the gamy taste of the duck and the earthy taste of the cabbage making friends with the wine’s flavors. It was also fine with my wife’s skate wing with chorizo and Brussels sprouts.
Then came the Ridge. Those blueberry and plum aromatics that I noticed at home were still there, and the texture made the wine feel lithe and elegant. But something else had joined the party in the glass. A hint of gaminess in the background betrayed the presence of brettanomyces, a spoilage organism that produces meaty, gamy, cow-patty aromatics. It makes the wine moo instead of letting it sing.
Can’t blame that on the cork; the brett was present in the wine from the start, but the beautiful fruit character obscured its presence. Now that the wine was evolving in the glass, the fruit was fading and other flavors, some of them nice and savory, were coming to the fore. Among those flavors was the brett.
Now, some people are more sensitive to brett than others are. Some even like what it adds to a wine. Not me. I might find it intriguing at very low levels, but it's repellent when it becomes prominent. Unfortunately, it took the wine out of contention for me.
You might think that these flavors would have been fine with the gaminess of the duck confit, or subsumed in the meatiness of beautifully slow-roasted beef, my main course. No such luck, and it’s too bad, because the wine itself had held up remarkably well. That’s another lesson. Good wines from good sites, made with impeccable balance, have a good chance to age much longer than you might think. Big tannins and big alcohol are not prerequisites for cellaring.
Good thing we had the Bonneville and the crisp Loire white off the restaurant’s list that preceded it. That’s the final lesson. Always have backup whenever you’re dealing with older wines. Because you never know.
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — January 4, 2010 8:17pm ET
Tim Sinniger — Bend, Oregon — January 4, 2010 9:38pm ET
Michael Bonanno — CT — January 5, 2010 8:35pm ET
Jonathan Rezabek — Chandler, AZ — January 6, 2010 5:01pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 6, 2010 5:11pm ET
Michael Bonanno — CT — January 6, 2010 8:29pm ET
Steve Dow — Beavercreek, OH — January 6, 2010 10:15pm ET
James Peterson — San Antonio, Texas — January 8, 2010 8:03pm ET
Stuart Chapman — Wales, UK — January 9, 2010 3:44pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 9, 2010 4:38pm ET
James Peterson — San Antonio, Texas — January 9, 2010 7:20pm ET
Mace D Howell Iii — fremont,ca,usa — January 11, 2010 10:07am ET
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