Wine’s Hidden Beauty: The Ultimate Pleasure of Aged Wine

Mature California Cabernet tasting dinner

Mature California Cabernet tasting dinner

The greatest, most pleasurable aspect of wine tends to be hidden from most consumers. You can buy wine from the store, purchase a glass or bottle at a restaurant, or attend a tasting at most wine stores or consumer tasting events and be totally oblivious of the phenomenon that is the holy grail for fine wine lovers. That is the incredible, often jaw-droppingly complex aromas, flavors and sublime beauty of a great wine that has been aged to maturity.

Not all wines are made for aging. Over 90% of wines in the marketplace are produced to be enjoyed soon after release, so I am not talking about aging a $15 California Chardonnay or the average Zinfandel. Wines made for aging typically have more phenolics than the average wine—more tannins, and compounds known as flavonoids and flavor precursors.

Wines that contain high amounts of these phenolics include top California Cabernet, Bordeaux, Italian wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, traditionally made Tempranillo blends from Rioja, and Syrahs from the Northern Rhone. For the compounds in wines like these to undergo the chemical processes and structural changes needed to fully express the potential range of flavors embodied in these wines takes time—from several years to two or three decades–under proper storage conditions. The result, though, is utterly worth it: wines with profound and entrancing perfume, complex and ethereal flavors, velvety texture, and soft, fully integrated tannins.

aged California Cabernets

aged California Cabernets

I had enjoyed wine, casually, for most of my life without being privy to the peak experience of drinking fabulous aged wine. On the rare occasions when I had a really expensive wine—typically a Napa Cabernet—it was at a restaurant when someone else was paying, like the client for whom I’d just closed a deal as a lawyer, and it was still a relatively recent vintage. A wine like that shows its power and one can tell it has purity of fruit, but there is little or no nuance or complexity to it.

My first opportunity to taste great aged wine—mature Bordeaux and a couple of old Italian wines—didn’t come until I was already in my mid-40s. A friend invited me to a tasting at a wine store in Southern California that regularly offered “library tastings”–tastings of bottles of older wines that they had set aside in their cellar and aged for some years to put into tastings like this for potential consumers. I was so captivated by the complex and nuanced flavors of these wines, and how much more interesting they were than any wine I’d ever tried before, that I just had to learn more about wine from that point on.

Last night, I had another such wine, an older Barolo, that reminded me of the huge difference between very good young wines and a great aged wine.

I was at a pasta making party with a group of wine friends. Virtually all the wines were very good and interesting in some way, especially the wines from a young friend of ours whose business is importing wine from selected French producers. The wine that stood out for the whole evening though, for me and my friends, was an older Barolo, a 1993 Rinaldi Brunate Le Coste, that I’d brought. It had a gorgeous nose of dried berry, roasted black fruit and fig, and a complex palate showing a variety of flavors, including anise, blackberry, ginger cake and dried berries.

1993 Rinaldi Brunate

1993 Rinaldi Brunate

Eighteen years is not particularly old for a Barolo. Barolo is made from Nebbiolo, the king of Italian grapes, which is very powerful and tannic. The traditional winemaking methods used to extract all that power out of the grape– long maceration periods and aging in neutral large oak casks—yield wines that usually don’t start to show their great complexity and beauty until they are 20 to 25 years old. Even then, they typically require a significant amount of decanting—exposure to air in a decanter or wine glass—to help soften the tannins further and allow the wine to open up and show what’s hidden inside.

So how can the average consumer who hasn’t been buying and storing great wines for years experience a fine aged wine? A number of restaurants, of course, have older vintages on their menus, but they usually run hundreds of dollars. In the local area, Vin Vino Wine in Palo Alto often features library wines in its daily tastings. The schedule for those tastings can be found on their website. K&L in San Francisco and Redwood City often features an older Bordeaux or two in their monthly Saturday Bordeaux tastings. And there’s an unusual group in the Palo Alto area that has met twice a week for blindtastings for over 30 years, often of older wines that have been stored for years by the group’s organizer. If you’re interested in getting on the mailing list for that group’s tastings, send me a message with your email address.

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tasting of older Burgundies at Vin Vino

Another way to access the experience of tasting fully mature wines is to ask around and find someone among your friends or acquaintances who collects wine. Ask them to invite you sometime when they are opening an older bottle. I promise the experience will be well worth the effort.

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9 Responses to Wine’s Hidden Beauty: The Ultimate Pleasure of Aged Wine

  1. Matt says:

    Richard,

    I know you used to live in the LA area. If you could can you give some local shops in the LA/OC area that offer these type of library tastings?

    Great blog!

    Thanks,
    Matt

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Matt,
      The places that used to offer some library tastings when I lived there are no longer doing so, or do so very rarely. A friend of mine, however, opened up a place in Culver City last year that sells older wines and offers tastings every Saturday that usually include library wines. I asked him today for an update after receiving your message, and he listed some of the older bottles they’ve had at tastings recently. Those included:
      1985 Lynch Bages
      1990 Mouton
      1995 Cos
      1995 Pegau Cuvee Lawrence
      2001 Shafer HSS
      1994 Montelena
      1995 Insignia
      1987 Mondavi Res
      1991 Dunn Howell
      ’91 & ’92 La Jota Cabernet
      1987 Dominus
      1982 Grange
      1998 Marcassin Estate Chard
      1996 Mount Eden Chard

      My friend, Michael Carpenter, also gave me a list of some of the horizontal and vertical flights on schedule for this year. They include:
      Montrachet
      2000 First Growths
      Chave/Chapoutier/Guigal whites
      Harlan Estate
      Dominus
      Phelps Insignia
      Phelps Eisele
      Dunn Howell
      Ridge Geyserville
      1974 Cal Cabs

      For more info on The Redd Collection, including their current inventory, go to their website: http://www.reddcollection.com/

      If other readers know of places in the L.A./Orange County area offering tastings of aged wines, please let us know.

      –Richard

      • Matt says:

        Richard,

        Thank you I will check it out.

        Matt

      • I was excited to see you pushing the virtues of mature wines Richard…..a passion for us both. Sharing properly aged wines with friends and clients is great fun and always educational. I have recently enjoyed comparing different vintages of the same wine (from same vyd, same winemaker, similar vintage) and allow people to get an idea of where the young one will be in a few years and how a mature wine used to be when young.

  2. Great post! As you know, the tasting of mature Chard, PN, and dessert wines was a first for me. What a great experience. I second your emotion!

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Thank you Martin. It was great tasting those old Cali wines at Rich’s with you. We’ll have to do more of it this year.

  3. Brady says:

    Richard,

    If you live in or visit a decent sized city, the major wine bulletin boards provide a great way to try older wines. For example, I’ve used Offline Planner forum at Wine Bersekers (http://www.wineberserkers.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=8) to attend mature Piedmont tastings.

    Nice blog.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Brady,
      Thanks for the kind words, and your excellent suggestion. I met most of my regular wine dinner buddies in this area through offline planners on the eRobertParker board, and WineBerserkers forum is now the most heavily trafficked site for that.
      –Richard

  4. Ixbal says:

    Congratulations on the unveiling of your new and imoprved web site! It is very easy to navigate and contains lots of great information. I look forward to following the blog posts on different wines since I enjoy good wines not necessarily expensive wines. I also look forward to following your different tastings schedules, in order to stop in the WineSeller to determine what my next purchases will be, as I have many times before. Cheers! Keep up the great work on the new site!

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