Patience and Fortitude

January 15, 2012

For people who collect wine, one of the nice little perks of a New Year rolling around is how it officially ticks up the calendar age of all the bottles in the cellar. Those 2002s which might have seemed too young to enjoy at nine years old may finally be knocking on the door of drinkability at age ten! This sort of thing can take the sting out of our own birthdays, too. Sure, each one brings us a little closer to the date our limbs start creaking and our pants won’t stay up without suspenders, but our wines are there to grow old with us.

The problem is that it really does require growing old. For most wines meant for aging, two years in the cellar or five years or even ten isn’t enough to take a wine to any place more compelling than it was on the day it came out. In fact, most are likely to taste quite a bit worse since that’s the age at which the shut-down phase of a wine’s evolution can be at its fiercest. Planning to age these wines five or ten years is like setting your warp-speed drive to a coordinate in the middle of an asteroid. You came so far but you picked the worst possible place to stop.

The uncomfortable truth is that great Bordeaux and Burgundy almost always needs at least twenty-five years of cellaring to be worth your while, sometimes more. When I think back to my most memorable Burgundy experiences over the last few years, the youngest vintage that offered truly magnificent and perfectly ready-to-drink wines was 1985—26 years past the vintage date in 2011. And that was a relatively precocious vintage. After that, you have to go back to 1978 and 1971. Bordeaux actually fares a bit better, mostly because 1989 and 1990 offered some wines on an atypically fast track to maturity. But if you restrict yourself to the more classic vintages, everything younger than 1986 is best kept undisturbed, and frankly even the ’86s seem to me to need a few more years. None of them offer the satisfaction of a perfectly à point claret that you can get nowadays from the best of the 1975, 1971, 1970, 1966, and older vintages. Twenty-five years, then, doesn’t even take you to the summit, only to the very beginning of the period in which you finally don’t have to feel like it’s a waste to open a bottle.

I don’t think enough wine collectors have put as much thought as they should have into the significance of this fact. Pause, then, to consider what can happen in a period of twenty-five years. It is the span of time in which a person can be born, grow up, finish college and graduate school, spend some aimless years wandering Europe or occupying Wall Street, and start procreating on his own.

Where will you be in twenty-five years?

Where were you twenty-five years ago?

I was 10. And if I had traded in my baseball cards for 1986 Bordeaux futures, I’d still be sitting and waiting on most of them.

One of the industry’s favorite ways to hype modern Bordeaux vintages is by comparing them to the ’47s. If the greatest bottle of Bordeaux you drink this year has a 1947 vintage tag on it, your 2009 will get there in the year 2074. Babies born in 2009 will qualify for Medicare in 2074.

People sometimes joke about a wine that it’s so backwards they’re really buying it for their grandchildren. It’s always a joke—a figure of speech, an expression of hyperbole. You seldom hear it lead to the dawn of realization: Hmm, I guess I really am buying this for my grandchildren.

The time frame necessary for wines to evolve from release to maturity wasn’t much of a problem when they were purchased by English aristocrats who actually were passing them on to their children, because they had inherited a drinking stock from their parents. The situation is a bit different now that most wine collectors picked up the interest on their own and had to start from scratch. They tend to view wine like any other consumer product and think that owning a wine is as simple as buying it. The reality is that even when those bottles are actually in your hands, you don’t really possess them. What you have is more like a contingent future interest, at best a postdated check. Someday it will mature, if all goes well. But the idea that you actually have in your possession the wine you thought yourself to be buying is a dangerous illusion that has had unsettling effects on the market. Does anyone doubt that the unprecedented price escalation of recent years owes a lot to the thrill of acquiring coveted symbols of wealth and taste? Does anyone think that other such symbols—take, for example, a Picasso—would fetch the prices they do if instead of getting a Picasso, you got a certificate promising to deliver a Picasso in twenty-five years?

None of this means we should forget about the long-agers. It is probably good for the soul to have so much invested in something that demands so much patience. But a smart collector definitely needs a strategy other than acquiring as much as possible of the best wine one can afford. Here are some of the things I do:

Take advantage of deals when a vintage tastes its absolute worst. Wine collectors can be a fickle and demanding lot, always asking what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Most great vintages go through a long stretch in which they don’t do anything at all, which inevitably leads to nervous nellies fearing that they were never any good in the first place and trying to get rid of all those impulse bottles they bought when the hype was irresistible. For years now, the 1995 Bordeaux vintage and the 1996 Burgundy vintage have been in this category. Buying either one gives you roughly a decade’s head start over the 2005s in the aging marathon. A quarter-century wait can try anyone’s patience, but if a ten-year wait sounds manageable you can buy these ’95s and ’96s now and be rewarded with twenty-five years of bottle aging once the decade’s up. And they’re priced fairly because if you were to open a bottle now, you probably wouldn’t be very impressed.

Sure, perhaps the prices also reflect a risk that the nervous nellies are right and the wines will never be as good as people initially thought. But I’m willing to bet otherwise. The thing is, it’s only recently that we’ve developed this compulsion to follow every vintage obsessively as it ages and reevaluate its worth in a state of constant realtime flux like brokers shouting “SELL! SELL!” on the New York Stock Exchange floor when a bad earnings report hits the wires. Previously, it was simply understood that wine was to be put away until it was ready. So there’s every likelihood that if we had a fossil record of people revisiting all the legendary vintages of the past at age 15, there’d have been all kinds of worrying about those wines, too. Which leads me to…

Resist temptations to “check in.” Or at least don’t do it with bottles from your own cellar. It’s one thing to sacrifice a bottle for the sake of science when you can easily go and buy more. It’s another thing when they’ve already run half the marathon. The investment you’ve put in cellaring a bottle for ten years can’t be replaced by anything. You have the peace of mind of knowing that it’s spent its whole life in perfect conditions and will likely emerge showing better than any bottle of the same wine you can find anywhere else. These are the most precious bottles in any wine cellar: not necessarily the most expensive or the rarest, but the ones that have had the most invested in their care and upbringing. We should be just as hesitant to open these as we are with “special occasion” bottles. You can always buy another trophy wine if you’re willing to pay for it, but time is more precious than money. Respect the investment you made.

Don’t forget the short-term agers. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions out there about what kind of wines reward short-term aging, which I’ll define as anywhere from three to ten years. The most oft-repeated bad advice is to buy lesser wines from great regions, such as appellation or village wines in Burgundy or basic Langhe nebbiolo in Piedmont. The problem is that hierarchies in wine tend to be defined by the heights a wine can reach, not by the time it takes to get there. A basic Gevrey will never manage to push all the buttons that a Chambertin can, but the time it will need to reach the point of tasting like a mature wine is not substantially less. Open some cheap 1999s if you don’t believe me. They still taste like young wines if they aren’t closed up altogether, and they are ten years past release. By the time they’ve peaked, you might wish you’d shelled out a few more dollars for the premier crus, anyway.

With the exception of those few legendary wines that seem ageless and immortal no matter how old they get, the rate of evolution for a wine seems to me to depend more on the simple fact of what type of wine it is (region, grape) than where it stands in the quality hierarchy of its type. So rather than buying basic wines from the most elite regions, focus on the very best wines in categories that just age faster. Beaujolais offers some options; a wine like Lapierre Morgon seems to offer real tertiary character seven or eight years after release. New World regions are also useful for this and needn’t require any stylistic compromises so long as you avoid the sort whose winemakers appear on magazine covers. For example, Henschke’s Mount Edelstone shiraz and Mount Langi Ghiran’s shiraz at ten years old are packed with the same character one craves in mature northern Rhônes. Over really short timespans, though, white wines of course deliver the biggest payoff. The best Sancerres from producers like the Cotats, top albariños such as Do Ferreiro’s Cepas Vellas, and, in a similar category, Henry Marionnet’s ancient-vine Provignage romorantin all show a visceral awesomeness with as few as three years in the cellar that’s not even hinted at in the pale, gossamer liquid they are on release. And of course there is riesling. People hear stories of transcendental German rieslings at forty years of age and assume they all need to be put away forever. But a typical spätlese at eight to ten years old is already a very different animal than it was on release, and there is a good argument to be made that this is their real peak period inasmuch as further development can come at the expense of energy and vibrancy. This is not at all a bad time to be drinking 2001s, 2002s, and 2003s.

Support producers who age their wine for you. The current releases of Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Bosconia and Viña Tondonia Rioja Gran Reservas are the 1991s. Renaissance Winery is still offering six cabernets and claret blends from 2001 or earlier. Calera and Mayacamas regularly offer library selections. And there are tons of 2002 Champagnes just recently put on store shelves, which, if you do the math, are already ten years old. Some of them will only need a few more years to get where you want them to be.

Don’t believe the bullshit. For the same reasons that lots of folks who buy thousands of bottles of wine wouldn’t get so carried away if they understood that it meant a decades-long commitment, people who buy publications reviewing thousands of bottles of wine might lose some interest in the chase if the reviewers were honest about how much time those wines really needed to make the purchase worth the while. But sometimes telling the truth isn’t as clear a path to fame and fortune as telling people what they want to hear. I recently looked back at the initial Wine Spectator reviews for the 1995 and 1996 Bordeaux vintages, which is where I got my own start in this game. Here are some of the actual drinking windows they projected back then. 1995 Lafite-Rothschild: “Best after 2000.” 1995 Haut-Brion: “Best after 2001.” 1995 Latour: “Best after 2002.” But the review of the 1996 Latour takes the cake. It concludes: “This is how they built clarets in the great years of the 1960s and 1950s. Best after 2005.” This was worse than blind speculation; it was a willful denial of reality. How many first-growth clarets from 1961 or 1959 or 1955 were at their best six years after release? If you’re going to make the serious monetary investments that wine now requires, you have to do it with your eyes open. It would be great to see that investment pay off in as little as three years, but that’s just wishful thinking.

Don’t doubt for a moment that it’s worth it. We live in the age of short-attention spans and instant gratification. Most of us don’t volunteer for many undertakings that require a whole human generation’s worth of planning and commitment before bearing fruit. But if you want to experience wine at its most sublime, there are no alternatives. A lot of producers have reconciled themselves to (or cynically embraced) the new reality that there are a whole lot of people who want to fancy themselves wine connoisseurs without having to put in any time waiting for their prized acquisitions to develop. These producers offer wines designed to provide thrills on release, making the implicit promise that they may offer a different kind of pleasure than the satisfaction of drinking a perfectly mature, classically made wine from a great terroir but that both are equally profound experiences that ding at the same point on the pleasure-o-meter. That’s snake oil, of course. Nobody’s obligated to read the classics all the time. It’s nice to lose oneself in a trashy page-turner on occasion. But one is no substitute for the other.

Everybody with a wine cellar should make an effort—at least once a year, more often if you can—to consume one majestic old bottle that reminds you exactly why we’re in this. Even if it requires a flagrant defiance of your comfort zone in an auction, a splurge at an expensive restaurant, or a flight to Tampa. The wine should be at least thirty years of age, ideally forty or more, and come with provenance you can trust. My bet is that it lingers in your mind like nothing else you drink all year and puts all those ten-year-old bottles in perspective. I can’t think of any better way to instill the patience and fortitude necessary to get some of one’s own bottles carried along on the same journey.

%d bloggers like this: