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Lessons in Opening Mature Wines

Be prepared—you never know what you might find
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 14, 2013 3:47pm ET

Whenever I plan to serve older bottles of wine, I always pull an extra bottle or two from the cellar, even if they aren't the same wine, to be ready in case the first disappoints. Individual wines often don't age as well as expected, or hoped. And inevitably, cork taint or maderization from some percentage of bad corks will force you to pour away some bottles. 

I also open and decant these bottles before guests arrive, better than dealing with a bad bottle while everyone else nibbles on hors d'oeuvre. When I open several wines, I funnel them back into the rinsed-out bottles to avoid a clutter of decanters.

For a private charity dinner in September, I opened my last bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Special Selection 1985. My penultimate bottle of this legendary wine, consumed only last year, was fabulous. This last bottle, however, suffered from cork taint. Down the drain it went.

Having promised a mature California Cabernet from that era, I impulsively pulled out my last bottle of Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 1980. I had bought it in the 1980s, part of a mixed case with the winery's 1979 and 1981 vintages, and the other bottles had been terrific. These days only old timers like me remember Santa Cruz Mountain and its quirky proprietor, Ken Burnap, but the wine was the surprise hit of the evening in a lineup that included mature Cabernets from Beaulieu, Mondavi, Beringer, Stelzner and Abreu. Its still-vibrant currant fruit stacked up in layers with earthy extras. Great with steak, too.

All this is part of the fun of opening older wines you've saved for a while. Twist-off caps would solve the cork-taint issue (and preserve the freshness of the wines better), but even with them wines don't always age the way we hope. So be prepared if things don't quite work out. And that's why, when my Welsh friend Mr. Jones finally accepted my longstanding invitation to raid my wine cellar on one of his visits to San Francisco, I opened four bottles for the four of us to drink over dinner (not counting the sparkling wine aperitif).

Each bottle required crossed fingers. I fully expected either the 1982 Valpolicella or the 1986 Barbaresco to fall short. Even the 10-year-old Burgundy and the 11-year-old Oregon Pinot Noir had me worried. But this time they were all in great shape. I poured the two Italian wines to drink with heirloom tomato pasta, and kept them on the table for the main course of roasted sirloin of grass-fed beef from BN Ranch. I served them with king trumpet mushrooms, quinoa and farmers' market green beans, and poured the Pinot Noir-based wines.

I got a kick out of watching my friend go to work on the wines. Most wine people I know love to sample them randomly with each dish, going back and forth to track how they evolve in the glass and go with the food. Not my friend. He started in on the Quintarelli Valpolicella 1982, gave it his full attention, and finished his glass before turning to the next one, Gaja Barbaresco 1986. He did the same with the Louis Latour Chambertin Cuvée Héritiers Latour 2003, a gift from a house guest last year, and Belles Soeurs Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard 2002, which I had purchased in a mixed case from Beaux Frères on release.

Back when I could actually afford them, I bought several bottles each of the two Italian wines. Subsequent vintages soared in price as the wine world realized just how distinctive they were. The late Giuseppe Quintarelli did not make his Valpolicella in the light, easygoing style of most wines in that appellation. He aimed for density, intensity and depth, without losing the essential deftness the grapes can produce, and they aged magnificently.

Truth to tell, 31 years is a bit much to ask of any Valpolicella, even his, and this one had the unmistakable smoky, slightly medicinal aromatics of a wine on the downslide. But it was still fascinating to drink, with the ghosts of its blackberry and cherry fruit still floating in the background. The wine was sound and complete, even if was past its prime.

The Barbaresco, however, was still vibrant, its prickly tannins tamed, its fruit still present, and all the extra notes of rose petal, tar and a hint of caramel coming together in total harmony. Though 1986 was not a classic vintage, careful winemakers produced excellent wines. Gaja fits that category.

The Burgundy, from a very ripe vintage, had tremendous presence, complex spice and floral aromatics and mouthfilling dark berry and smoke flavors. Its finish seemed to lift itself up and float in midair. It was everything one could want from a grand cru like Chambertin, perhaps a bit too much density because of the heat of the vintage, but I wasn't complaining. It had a great story to tell as it evolved in the glass.

I chose the Oregon wine because it was from a vineyard that produced similarly ripe characteristics in vintage after vintage but in a year with relatively cool average temperatures. The resulting wine had great drama, a nose full of vibrant dark fruit—blueberry, plum, currant—and a spice shelf full of nuances. It had great depth and finesse. My friend really got into this one, as its layer of fine tannins seemed to vanish after some time in the glass (and with a bite of the beef and mushrooms).

We finished all four wines off with a cheese course. I firmly believe in hard cheeses for red wine, so we had a couple of California classics: Vella Dry Jack and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese's Toma. The wines had come together into fully integrated, harmonious wholes, softened their edges and developed extra nuances that made them fascinating to drink on their own. And they responded to the flavors and textures of all the food by showing yet more aspects. That's why we age them.

Brandon Redman
Brandon R., Seattle, WA —  October 15, 2013 10:55am ET
Once again, Harvey, a magnificent read. I could almost taste the wines! Thanks.
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  October 15, 2013 9:48pm ET
An Atomic evening? Always liked the Welsh. . .

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