Old wines need tender, loving care to be at their best
May 23, 2001
Since I'll be celebrating my own birthday Friday let's talk about old age, wine old age, not mine.
One of the standard cliches about growing old, people or products, is "Like good wine, (he)(she)(it) gets better with age. That's simply not true unless you add the word "some" good wine gets better with age. But some good wine gets worse, although most of the time it is not the fault of what's in the bottle but rather who owns the bottle.
I reproved that to myself just last week. One of my favorite Red Zinfandels carries the improbable name "Cigar." It is a lush, rich, fruity wine that almost tastes like Port. The maker is Constantino Wineries of California. I gave a bottle to Sela Ward a few months ago (she loves good wines, too) and she became an instant fan. Her assistant searched wine stores in and around Los Angeles looking for Cigar and could find none.
I wrote the winery, who I might add solved the problem, but also sent me a press kit on their wines. I knew none of them were available in Mississippi so I called my New Orleans contact who called Constantino's Louisiana distributor. They had six of the company's other varietals. The cost averaged about $20 per bottle.
I brought them home expecting nectar of the gods. What I got was tired wines that had been cellared in some corner of the warehouse obviously under terrible conditions of heat, perhaps even sunshine. A six year old Chardonnay was dark, smelled bad, tasted worse and had to be poured out. A red wine was similarly foul. It had turned brown and was positively undrinkable. It too went down the sink. A third, a different grape, joined the first two. None of the wines was older than three years. They hadn't become better with age. They had died in the bottle.
I took the remaining three back to the retailer. They returned my money without an argument. Constantino's Cigar Zinfandel is still a great wine. Perhaps the others were too but I shall never know.
On the other hand, a wine loving friend called last week and asked what I knew about Petite Syrah. He had just drunk a 1993 Stag's Leap and loved it. He suggested it might be fun to drink one or two of mine and compare against older versions of the same grape. I agreed.
One of the two Petite Syrahs I pulled was a 1985 Ridge. The other a 1978 Stag's Leap. My opinion pre-opening was the 85 had a chance to be drinkable, the 78 none at all. He disagreed. He was right.
Both had been in my cellar for years so both had been well stored. Both were marvelous. The 85 was big, full and still young. The 78 was at its peak, fruity, well balanced, without tannins, a marvelous bottle of wine.
Now how could a Constantino 98 be undrinkable and a Stag's Leap 78 be at its prime? The answer in both cases was storage. One had been stored properly. The other had not.
More times than I care to remember some one has told me about a bottle of wine his or her father gave to him. He had put it in a closet, discovered it "the other day" and was certain it would be great because, as everyone knows, wine gets better with age. I would bet a bottle stored under those conditions would have long since turned bad, and I'd win a lot more times than I would lose.
When you buy wine, do one of two things. Either store it properly, a dark room with a temperature below 70 degrees, the lower the better or drink it. There are no miracles in wine. Give it tender, loving, sensible care and it will give you great pleasure in return. Do otherwise and don't be surprised if it turns on you.
Tomorrow evening's wine tasting to be held at Northwood Country Club features the best and most varied collection we have offered in this, the first complete year of these tastings. It is indeed the best of the best from the first year, a great Australian Cabernet, an outstanding Italian Chianti, a fine Merlot from Washington State, the best Red Zinfandel we discovered last year, a stunning Chardonnay, a luscious Australian red wine blend, a sparkling wine that is a bargain with which the evening will begin, and yes, I have robbed my own cellar for bottles of the almost impossible to find Cloudy Bay, as far as I am concerned New Zealand's finest Sauvignon Blanc.
The tasting begins at 6:30 p.m. You do not have to be a member of Northwood to attend but you must make a reservation at 482-0930. You may purchase dinner at the club after the tasting. The price is still only $20 per place and there is space available. If you own one of the great Riedel wine glasses, bring it if you wish or use the ones the Country Club will provide. As usual we will tell you about the wines that you are drinking. Learning and pleasure too. It doesn't get any better than that.
Stan Torgerson, a longtime Meridian resident, has written a wine column for several years.