The best way to learn how wines age is to drink older wines. Sure, you can trust the opinions of others who have experience with mature wines. But there’s nothing like firsthand knowledge.
Every year I taste hundreds of aged wines in various settings. Some are formal, blind tastings, which I use for both my own research and in tasting reports as information for readers who have mature wines in cellars. Others are random, as in when my wine-drinking friends offer to showcase gems from their collections.
By old I mean wines that can range from eight or 10 years of age to those that occasionally flirt with the century mark. And the mix of wines is global, though tilted toward California.
One routine involves tasting California Cabernets at 10-, 20- and 30-year intervals, something I’ve been doing for more than 20 years.
Yesterday I finished a small flight of 1977 Cabernets and there were two stellar wines that I’m sure would wow any wine lovers—the amazing Joseph Phelps Insignia (93 points) and the Mayacamas (90).
Both of these wines were delicious, having reached a perfect drinking plateau. The Insignia in particular would have fooled most Bordeaux lovers, as it bore a hauntingly familiar similarity to a great Haut-Brion, right down to the cedary cigar box and dried currant nuances. And for good reason. Insignia that year was a blend of Cabernet (50 percent), Merlot (30 percent) and Cabernet Franc (20 percent), which I believe was the smallest percentage of Cabernet ever for that Bordeaux-inspired wine
Mayacamas was similarly outstanding, dark and potent, with a mix of youthful and mature Cabernet flavors and tannins that had mellowed. The ruggedly tannic Mayacamas Cabernets of the 1970s were among the greatest Cabernets ever made in California.
Another handful of wines were good to excellent—the Phelps Backus Vineyard (88), the Beringer Private Reserve (85), Sterling Reserve (84) and Mount Eden Saratoga (84), in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Of note, with the case of Beringer, the winery’s first private reserve, it showed less polish and complexity than it did recently when I tasted a full vertical of all Beringer PRs with winemakers Ed Sbragia and Laurie Hook. Sterling was made by Ric Forman, who went on to more great things, and now has his own winery. Mount Eden almost always ages well and was exemplary in the 1997 retrospective.
Most of the wines were past their prime, including Burgess, Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace, Freemark Abbey Bosche, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and Bella Oaks, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 and Stags’ Leap Vineyard Lot 2, Silver Oak and Ridge Monte Bello. They either displayed advanced age (with nutty traces of oxidization) or were simply shot. Are there better bottles of these wines out there? Maybe. For most of the 1977s I tried both bottles submitted by the wineries and there was significant bottle variation.
I also took note of the alcohol levels. The 1977 vintage was the second in a two-year drought in California. Rainfall was sparse over the winter and the crop was small. Most of the wines I tasted were in the 13.5 to 13.8 percent alcohol range, except the Monte Bello, which clocked in at 11.9. It remains one of California’s most distinctive sites. It’s a very cool mountain vineyard yet it can achieve ripe fruit flavors at amazingly low alcohol levels. The 1977 was a great wine for a long time even if the two bottles I tried this time were over the hill.
The quality of wines this age of course varies significantly. What the top wines proved is balance is everything. And while these wines are much different than the riper, more opulent styles made today, there are always things to be learned.
Wines, like athletes or authors or perhaps musicians, are best judged in their prime, and of course the challenge there is when do they reach their peak. No football player who raced through tackles in his 20s would be high stepping into the end zone in his 40s, though Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen are aging quite well.
I like to taste the older wines for the same reason that I’ll pick up an old novel or watch an old movie. They may not be in vogue today. But a look back at older wines allows one to appreciate the wines that survived and to consider and appreciate what made them ageworthy, what they have to offer and whether aging wines this long is right for you.
Peter Judson — Montreal, Quebec — November 30, 2007 8:45pm ET
John Stickler — nyack ny — December 1, 2007 9:32am ET
Roberto R Ricardo — Stanford, CA — December 1, 2007 12:17pm ET
Anthony Clapcich — new york — December 2, 2007 9:55pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — December 3, 2007 3:18pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — December 3, 2007 4:53pm ET
Christopher Sprague — Portland, ME — December 3, 2007 8:21pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — December 4, 2007 11:37am ET
Anders Aagaard — Copenhagen, Denmark — January 10, 2008 10:40am ET
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