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.
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.
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.
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.