"Now that Wine Spectator has made it safe to drink Merlot again," Mark Tarlov joked as he opened a valise before lunch in San Francisco, "I thought we could try this." He extracted a 36-year-old bottle of Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard 1981 from the bag.
The Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard 2014, our 2017 Wine of the Year, put the lie to a longstanding disdain among snobby wine drinkers who found Merlot no longer as appealing as other grapes. In particular Pinot Noir, the specialty grape variety of Tarlov's Chapter 24 winery in Oregon.
His bottle looked a little dusty, having lain untouched in his personal cellar since 1984. With a fill nearly touching the cork, it looked promising. The first sniff revealed a mix of earthy loam, dried herbs and white pepper, the first sip a nice hint of cherry, but it finished with an unfortunate sharpness.
"We can always open the Burgundy I brought instead," he sighed. But five minutes later, things improved. The Merlot's fruit was more prominent, the texture took on a polished sheen. We kept sipping at it. It got better with every tick of the clock, and by the third glass it was completely charming. The aroma and flavor profile extended to currant, fresh mint and savory spices, and the finish broadened nicely against a welcome transparency.
Not a particularly great vintage, 1981 produced small quantities of pleasant reds in Napa. Only the fourth year bottled from this vineyard in the warm northern corner of Napa Valley, this was clearly a step up from that, well worth the patience.
On successive evenings, two more old bottles came up unexpectedly great.
Recalling a recent recommendation from a sommelier at a fine Indian restaurant to match older reds to foods with prominent Indian spices, I pulled out my last bottle of Ceretto Barolo Brunate Bricco Rocche 1993, another nice vintage not expected to age spectacularly. But this wine struck a delicate balance of savory, earthy notes against classic Barolo rose petal. The strawberry and raspberry notes shone. Tannins had softened into a velvety burr. The finish refused to quit. The wine sensationally completed tandoori lamb and shrimp in a spicy spinach sauce, and vice versa.
Finally, for a chicken I roasted for my wife's birthday, I opened a long-cellared bottle of Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve Napa Valley Lemmon-Chabot Vineyard 1980, another good but unspectacular vintage for Napa. This vineyard, outside St. Helena on the east side of the valley, has always been a key element in the winery's private reserve bottlings. This single-vineyard bottle was absolutely gorgeous from first sip—generous, expansive but not weighty, plush and silky in texture, vibrant with black cherry, red plum and blueberry flavors. The finish rolled on and on. Great with the spatchcocked chicken, baked potatoes and long-cooked carrots.
Keeping wines for 24, 36 or 37 years guarantees nothing, of course. I usually prefer to drink wines on their way up because corks can fail, bottle variation can rob wines of their charm, and wines can simply head down a fading slope. Frankly it's a bonus when three straight old bottles emerge this good. What makes it worth leaving a few bottles alone for a decade or three? A wine can slowly develop into something more graceful and complex. When it does, it can deliver big smiles.