There's a downside to aging wines too long. That might seem obvious, but few wine lovers take that into consideration when purchasing wines to lay down in the cellar for a while.
In a conversation and tasting with John Kongsgaard the other day, we talked about terroir, to what extent it exists (and can be identified), at what age it might be most readily identified in a wine and, ultimately, that with enough age, all wines lose their terroir. They become old wines inseparable from one another.
Illustrating this point, Kongsgaard poured two Cabernets that he made early on his career, as a 26-year-old home winemaker in the 1970s with his father, Thomas, in Napa. They used minimalist equipment, a crusher, press, likely a lab yeast, a hand-corking machine, and did little else to the wines before bottling.
Once bottled, the wines were stored in the family's cellar, resting there for nearly four decades.
The wines were special. Kongsgaard was a student at U.C. Davis at the time and had worked at various cellars in Napa. The grapes came from a then largely unheard-of property, Fay Vineyard, on the Silverado Trail at the southern entrance of what is now the Stags Leap District. Nate and Nellie Fay were growers, making homemade wine but selling most of their grapes to a handful of vintners, among them Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Clos Du Val and, briefly, Heitz.
Kongsgaard's two wines, a 1976 and a 1978, were instructive on a couple of counts. The '76 was from a drought year, which yielded very ripe and raisiny grapes that were quite concentrated and tannic. 1978 was a classic of the era, one of the top two or three vintages of the 1970s.
Both wines were alive and well, but more like nimble 80-year-olds than anything in their prime. Both smelled like what Stephan Henschke called an old lady's purse when I tasted with him and my colleague Harvey Steiman.
The '78 offered subtle rose petal, anise and a mahogany edge that held up. But would either of us have guessed the wine's identities or appellation were they tasted blind? No. Whatever distinctive traits the wines had of Fay Vineyard had faded with time.
As I said, the wines were special. They were Kongsgaard's first tries with Cabernet and winemaking and he made them with his father at the old family estate known as Stonecrest. Today that vineyard is the site of a Chardonnay that goes into Kongsgaard's The Judge bottling.
These oldies are historic wines that Kongsgaard can share with his winemaker son Alex and friends, more curiosities than something you'd aim for had you bought the wines young. Never having left the property worked to the wines' advantage as well, we agreed. Too often, though, people buy wines, lay them in their cellar and forget they have them before it's too late.