Friday, January 27, 2006

Good and bad surprises from the cellar

Knowing when it is the right time to drink a wine is always a challenge. You can always try to compute a window of drinkability based on numerous factors such as tannins, acidity, appellation, vintage, varietal, winemaker, ageability of the wine in past vintage, not to forget the storage conditions. But far too many parameters influence how wine ages and whatever you compute is only a rough approximation. Consequently, opening a bottle of mature wine often produces surprising — and for me, fascinating — results. A wine that you expected to age well can be disappointingly passed its prime time. On the contrary, a modest wine may turn out to be delicious.

I prefer drinking my wines in their full adulthood, when they have shed their baby fat and picked up complexity. But at the same time, I am always afraid to wait too long and miss their peak. In fact, I regularly check my cellar inventory looking for wines that might have started to decline.

This is how I recently found two bottles that looked suspicious: a 1996 Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot and a 1995 Geyser Peak Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County. I opened the Puligny-Montrachet first. The wine had a encouraging bright golden color but the nose was rather shy with hints of cheesy aromas. On the palate, the wine had more cheesy off-flavors covering a once opulent nutty body. I retasted the wine the day after. It had become completely undrinkable and I immediately poured it down the sink.

Then I tried the Geyser Peak. This Cabernet Sauvignon has always been known for its excellent quality-price ratio but not specifically for its ability to age. The wine had a deep red color that hardly showed any sign of age. On the nose, I found black currant and earthy aromas more typical of Bordeaux. On the palate, it was soft and elegant with hints of mushroom and chocolate flavors. Retasting it the day after, the wine was surprisingly even more delicious, exhibiting additional sweet raspberry flavors.

So how do you known when a wine is too old?

“My answer to this is straightforward,” says Matt Kramer in an humorous Wine Spectator article called When Good Wines Say Good-Bye. “A wine is too old when you have to imagine it. When you have to bring to a wine a lot more than it's bringing to you, time's up. The wine is no more.”

But when the wine is good, you don't need to use your imagination. The wine is present. It still has the power to charm you...and let you forget the other bottles that you had to pour down the sink.

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