Buy Young, Drink Old
Which wines will improve with age?
There are more wine cellar storage units than ever in the marketplace and a growing number of public spaces devoted to storing your wine. The question is: which wines are worth storing and exactly what can you expect from them down the road?
Last month, I attended one of the greatest tastings I have ever been involved with in New York City. I mention it not because I was there and you were not, but rather because it aptly illustrates why one can, and should, cellar wine — sometimes for decades.
High above Manhattan, in a posh Tribeca penthouse, I tasted through 58 of the 59 vintages of the Australian icon Penfolds Grange Bin 95 Shiraz. It may sound crazy, but Grange at 40 years of age seemed as if it was just beginning to hit its stride in the bottle. The wines from the 1950s were sublime.
Cellaring wine for 50 years is a planning exercise of sorts, unless you can afford the modern-day price of old wine. I must admit it can be affordable in times when the economy is bumping along in uncertainty; otherwise, my advice is buy young and cellar the wine yourself.
There are several upsides to buying young from the source and storing the wine yourself. You know the provenance of the wine is authentic (fraud is a growing problem in aftermarket sales) and you can control the storage parameters: temperature, light, vibration, etc. All will help the wine age longer and safer.
That said, most of the wine produced today will barely age a decade, never mind 40 years. And a lot of what gets bought and cellared won’t stand up to such aging. I can sheepishly admit to having dozens of bottles in my cellar that are past their prime.
While we firmly believe most wine improves with age, the challenge is to know which wine you can cellar for a lifetime, or at least 30 or 40 years. Wine is a living thing, but, unlike most foods we buy, it has a peculiar ability to improve with age — up to a point. People in the wine business, and that includes me, would suggest some 10% of all reds are worth cellaring. When it comes to whites, you can cut that number in half. Long-term cellaring reduces those percentages to less than three percent.
So which wines are the keepers? Let’s start with some obvious candidates. Among the reds, cabernet sauvignon remains king because its structure — its DNA, if you like — is built to age. Firm tannins and, if picked properly, a fine level of acidity, along with some oak aging, all conspire to give it a long life. Throw in a perfect vintage, some top-flight winemaking and perfect cellar conditions, and you have a chance the wine will outlive you.
You can add cabernet franc, merlot, any blend containing the aforementioned, syrah and syrah blends and nebbiolo out of Barolo. Dessert wines, especially botrytized sweet wines from Sauternes and Loire and most vintage ports, all do extremely well with bottle age, as does the chenin blanc grape. For the best white grapes for aging, one must look at chardonnay from top Burgundy sites and, of course, the white that seems to age effortlessly — German riesling.
The science is perhaps less exact, but we know most red wine is fermented on, and left in contact with, its skins for an extended period of time to extract large amounts of colour and tannins (before it is aged in wood). It also contains large amounts of tannins that need time to combine with the fruit, acidity, alcohol and oak to become a seamless, balanced, delicious wine. As for white wine, acidity rules the roost along with some form of lees contact. Both go a long way to preserving a wine’s youth in the cellar.
So now that you are committed to cellaring some wines for a lifetime, or perhaps for your kids or grandkids, the question is: which wines will it be? My advice is be patient. As much as I have sought out certain wines over my collecting career, the truth is there is always something to buy and, frankly, there is never really any real rush to buy a certain wine. If you miss a wine or a vintage you really want, there are plenty more, just as interesting around the corner and often the cost is a lot less.
Finally, a word about price. Generally, inexpensive wine doesn’t age nearly as well as, shall we say, wines of a certain price. That doesn’t mean you have to pay hundreds of dollars to get a wine worth aging. The aforementioned Grange vertical was followed by some 35 vintages of Koonunga Hill cabernet shiraz, many of which showed well and were sold for as little as $2 in Australia back in the day. It’s those kinds of pleasant surprises that can motivate you to be a savvy collector.