When I worked in wine shops I often knew recommended cellaring periods as part of my sales spiel. What excellent useless trivia! Spending $60 on a Chateauneuf du Pape? I could tell you how long to bury it in your basement. That knowledge? Long gone! But in the course of those jobs I had frequent opportunities to taste properly aged wine. Unlike other countries (like Australia, which loves its wine and wine drinkers) it's not easy to purchase cellared wine in the U.S.; here, you generally purchase a new vintage and undertake the responsibility of cellaring it yourself if you have the time, means, and patience.
Years ago, I had the time, knowledge, and patience. I rarely had the means, as I've publicly admitted. But for maybe five years, across four apartments, I've been dragging cases of wine. These bottles have been locked in abandoned surveillance trunks in damp, shared basements. They've been set negligently into sunny pantries. They've lived under my bed. When I acquired sufficient wine racks they migrated to living rooms and dining rooms. The ideal cellaring conditions have come and gone from place to place. But as the wine became a solid part of my living space I grew careless of the fact that like evolution of the species, only the fittest wine survives rough treatment.
Lately I've had cause to open some of my old wines. Em's visit was once such occasion, Alex's stay another. It's been educational. First, I've recognized that I no longer work in wine shops and no longer have any claim to knowledge of when to drink this stuff. I keep going at 1999 wines with a corkscrew, for instance, and I'm always surprised when the corks disintegrate into the wine. (Thank goodness I invested in a good filter and several decanters.)
But the surprises are good, too. Emily brought two (!) bottles of the 1993 Seppelt Great Western Vineyard Shiraz. Prior to her visit I'd grown accustomed to buying cheap wine, suitable for cooking, drinking, or any combination thereof. I had been drinking wine that worked, not wine that inspired. With the first few sips of that Seppelt I felt my personality playing musical chairs with the cheap wine drinking part unable to find a seat. The Seppelt is why humanity created wine, why wine was elevated to an art form, and why we bother with the stuff at all. It's craft and sensory decadence. It's why I loved wine in the first place. Since then I differentiate between wine suitable for cooking and wine suitable for drinking. (No matter what James Beard said, they are distinct.)
So by the time my next honored guest showed up, I had a taste for stately old wine. The process of wrestling with myself as I selected and opened a bottle I'd lugged across my life for five years was a delicious pain. And I'd pour that wine into my best crystal, my heart leaping at the tawny edges that indicated good age, and hope the sacrifice was worthwhile.
Usually it was. But among the educational components was this: my taste in wine was kind of odd five years ago. When I started drinking wine I loved sweet white dessert wines and only gradually moved to big reds. (Similarly, I started drinking dark sweet beers that were like meals, and slowly slid over to incredibly hoppy pales. Malt --> hop is akin to sugar --> tannin, I think.) Around the time I was purchasing cellar-worthy wines, I loved big jammy fruit bombs in the California style. So there I was opening arguably the world's finest Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs for my guest, a fan of tannic Shirazes! The wines were indescribably nuanced and inarguably stately, but they just didn't suit the situation. Having eyed the cabernets, syrahs, and Rhone blends I've been shelving for a couple of years, I think I'll let them sit a few years more and see if they suit me well. I believe they will.
Amid all this rediscovery was one disaster. The Guigal 1998 Chateau d'Ampuis Cote-Rotie pictured above held a horrible slick surprise for us. Upon removing the cap the cork was clearly green-blue with mold. Oh, but I held out hope: I gently removed the moldy cork with a prong extractor, decanted the wine, and set all my senses toward detection. However, my inadequate senses of smell and taste are the exact reasons I no longer work with wine-- I just wasn't born with the sensory perceptions necessary to make a go of the career. Alex and I observed, sniffed, tasted, and concluded that we would drink it but we were probably not qualified to make that decision. I didn't trust the wine. It sat for a night and in the morning, my emotions comfortably blunted by sleep, I finally poured it down the sink. It was a hell of a wine to lose. It taught me not to take these cellared bottles for granted, and to drink them before they're undrinkable.
Unsurprisingly, I'm loquacious and enthusiastic off a bottle of old wine tonight. Yesterday I opened a 1999 Pezzi King Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. It's rich, huge, and colored exactly the way I'd want it to be. I'm trying to finish it off as I get prickly about oxidation probably well before it should be a worry-- I don't even like leaving it open overnight (a predilection that means I drink little wine from 750 mL bottles, as I simply can't finish that much before oxygen gets to the leftovers). Funny, though, that it reminds me of my turn-of-the-century preferences for Robert Parker-defying fruit sagas with light to medium tannins. Okay, I'll admit it again: fruit bombs. It's gratifying to taste my 2002 purchases and recognize that my tastes have changed. It's magnificent to open long-loved bottles and benefit from the energy expenditure it took to haul them across town three times.
Wine is always worthwhile.
- Current Location:Madison's west side
- Current Mood:didactic
- Current Music:Of Montreal - all of it, on shuffle