Judging the age-worthiness of wine is tricky business
How to know whether a wine is age-worthy? That depends on a lot of factors, including the grape varietal, the winemaker and the conditions under which it is aged. One sure way to find out if a wine has aged well is to drink it. And recent tastings confirm that even Washington whites can hold up.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Barnard Griffin 2009 Rosé of Sangiovese; $10
Winner of a gold medal from the San Francisco Chronicle judging for the past five years, Rob Griffin's sangio-based rosé is a summer-celebration wine. Strawberry, orange rind, hints of melon and a slice of peach, all in a round, fruity, delightful wine that is just a whisper away from bone dry. Serve well-chilled in tumblers. (Noble distributes)
I'VE BEEN collecting and cellaring wines long enough now that the inevitable "vintage creep" has caught up with me. Wine cellars, like gardens, need constant weeding or they will be overrun with things gone to seed. Worse yet, wines have a finite — though unpredictable — life span. Casting my eyes around my cellar recently I gloomily concluded that I was in danger of breaking one of my personal cardinal rules, which states (with apologies to Orson Welles), "I shall drink no wine after its time."
Though I do not keep a close watch on individual wines, I have a pretty good handle on the general aging curves of the types of wines I collect. As a large portion of the cellar is devoted to producers from Washington and Oregon, I want to time my tastings of older wines so that they still have a bit of youthful juice in them, yet are far enough along to show how specific varietals and vintages react over time. If I open a bottle and it's dead or over the hill, it's a wasted opportunity and an insult to what may have once been an excellent wine.
So in recent months I've popped aged corks with gleeful abandon. And I've been very pleased at what I've found. Washington's rieslings and sweet white wines, given their racy acidity, can last for decades. This state's red wines in general, and Oregon's pinots in particular, develop beautifully over a decade or more, provided that they were initially well-made and balanced. Aging a flawed wine won't fix the flaws, though with bottle age some tight, tannic reds do soften up and broaden their flavors.
It's to be expected that cabernet sauvignon and cab blends with small amounts of cab franc, merlot, petit verdot and/or malbec will be the most ageworthy, and they often are. But Washington merlots, which I have long believed are the best in the country on a price-to-quality basis, turn out to be bona fide agers as well. Merlots from Andrew Will, Columbia Crest (reserve), Fielding Hills, Forgeron, Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, Quilceda Creek, Walla Walla Vintners, L'Ecole, Long Shadows (Pedestal), Seven Hills, Sineann (Champoux), Canoe Ridge, Northstar, Soos Creek and Abeja have proven or anticipated life spans of at least a decade, and likely longer.
What might be the aging potential of more recently planted varietals? Not many producers can pull out a 10-or more-year-old syrah. But what few I've tasted suggest that it may rival cabernet for longevity — provided it was not over-ripened or bottled with extremely high pH. A real surprise is sangiovese. Walla Walla Vintners opened a 10-year vertical tasting of their sangioveses a few weeks ago, and it was the oldest, from 1999, that stole the show.
Some consumers look to vintage ratings (done by most of the major publications and wine newsletters) for guidance as to the ageworthiness of their wines. This is not a reliable indicator. Such ratings are inevitably generic, and cannot take into account the variability of specific vineyard sites and producers. Sometimes a vintage that seems less than stellar at the outset turns out to be more ageworthy than the vintage that has immediate appeal.
Furthermore, bad vintages have all but disappeared due to modern viticulture, and Washington (more so than Oregon) is blessed with reliably dry weather through harvest. For guidance, look to the track record of the producer, the type of grape or blend, cellar notes on the winery website or community tasting notes such as on CellarTracker. And if in doubt, drink up!
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.