china daily wine column #63

A friend gave me a mixed dozen for Chinese new year, mostly from the mid to late 1990s, and in recent days we tasted half of them to see how they were faring. It was an education.

We began with a 1997 Carneros Creek pinot noir. This estate was a pinot pioneer in California. The Carneros region is in the south of the Napa valley, about 90 minutes by car north of San Francisco, and in summer it receives cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean and San Pablo Bay.

The cork was in perfect condition and the wine, while it had peaked some years ago and was declining, was still pleasant. It was dark cherry in color with an appealing bitumen aroma. The tannins had softened and while the wine had almost no length it was still drinkable.

This pinot produced a lot of sediment, which is common for aged reds. Tasted the next day it was dead: oxidized and flat. The rest of the bottle went down the sink. The lesson here is to drink aged wines soon after opening, and remember they are delicate creatures.

The next wine was a 1995 Bourgueil from the Lame Delisle Boucard estate in the Loire region, labeled Cuvee Lucian Lame. This was their entry-level wine and not the grand vin that has won gold medals. The cork crumbled and the wine smelled sour. It should have been consumed a decade earlier. Instead, it followed the pinot down the sink – a pity because these cabernet franc-based wines can be lovely when young.

The key issues here are longevity and storage. Some wines are not meant to be cellared and should be consumed young. This raises the question: If stelvin caps had been available back in 1995 would this wine have been drinkable now? It is impossible to know.

Some vineyards in Australia’s premier cabernet sauvignon region, the Coonawarra, are doing tests: comparing stelvin caps with cork and artificial cork to see which are best for allowing wine to mature. The same vintage has been sealed with all three closures, and left for at least a decade. The tests started in 2005. It will probably be another decade before we will know the results.

Meanwhile, I prefer to buy wines with stelvin screwcaps. These may lack the romance of cork but they ensure the wine is free of cork taint, a problem for the Australian wine industry some years ago.

The third wine tasted was a 1998 dornfelder from the St Antony vineyard in Germany. This was my first encounter with the dornfelder grape so I needed to research it. Wikipedia tells me August Herold created the variety in 1955 at Germany’s grape-breeding institute in Weinsberg.

Wikipedia also says dornfelder has good acidity and the ability to benefit from barrel ageing. It is also easier to grow than spatburgunder, the German version of pinot noir.

The cork for this 1998 dornfelder was in pretty good condition. The wine was almost black and tasted of slightly sour plums. All the tannin had been integrated. While the wine had peaked some years ago, it was still drinking well the next day.

After a break another friend and I opened a 1995 Beringer private reserve chardonnay from Napa in California. Beringer has pedigree. It is the oldest operating wine in Napa, having opened in 1876. The Beringer bothers chose the Napa region because it looked like the terroir they knew from home, Germany’s Rhine region.

The brothers wanted to create tunnels in the hills on their property to store wine. The task of digging the tunnels went to Chinese workers who had returned to the area after helping build the railroad across America. The tunnels took many years to complete but are the perfect place to store wine.

The cork in this chardonnay broke as it came out of the bottle so I had to push the remainder into the wine, meaning I needed a sieve to remove crumbs of cork.

This wine received at least a year in French oak, which may explain why it was so well preserved. It tasted of dried coconut, with aromas of dried apricot. The color was dark gold and it still retained a touch of acid. It was drinking well the next day, and matched well with an over-ripe French brie.

In December, Parker’s Wine Spectator rated the 2009 Beringer private reserve chardonnay number 40 in its list of the top 100 wines for the year. The Beringer pedigree means I will seek their wines in the future.

Sadly I cannot report positive things about the 2001 Nepenthe pinot gris from the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. The cork looked all right but it crumbled like ash from a cigar as soon as the corkscrew entered. The wine tasted of nothing and went down the sink.

The 1994 Pendarves verdelho from the Hunter Valley of Australia also had a dodgy cork. But the wine somehow survived. It was dark gold, tangy yet dry, with a range of subtle flavors. Verdelho was once used to make fortified wines like madeira, and these last for years. Table wines made from the same grape are not so long-lived.

Pendarves Estate was started in 1986 by Dr Philip Norrie, a winemaker and doctor famous for his research into the relationship between wine and health. He published a booklet called Wine and Health.

So we come full circle, if you have read earlier wine columns about wine and health. What is the lesson here? Old wines can be wonderful but only if they have pedigree and have been stored well. Otherwise they should be drunk young.

* “Well, not all wines get better with age” in China Daily, 25 February 2012, page 12. Find a link here.

Categories: Not home, wine

1 reply »

  1. Dear Mr. Quinn,

    Can’t help but observe that several of the wines you reviewed exhibited dry and crumbling corks suggesting wines that have not enjoyed the best storage conditions. I have a cellar full of wines from the 80’s and 90’s. I find the corks from the 90’s are in great shape. When opening wines from the early 80’s, I make sure that I insert a good cork screw all the way to the very bottom of the cork. I find that without this precaution, some of the older corks will snap.

    There are many explanations for this, including the diameter of the bottle neck and the humidity of the cellar. Wines stored on their side will retain moisture at the bottom of the cork, but can become dry at the outer end.

    I think that this can serve as a useful signal for the health of the wine. After all, a wine bottle behaves like a living thing. The aging process allows slow maturation of the phenolics, sugar and acid. This development assumes certain conditions of temperature and humidity. Even with that, not all wines have the internal structure to mature well past ten years.

    As far as the ’97 Carneros Creek Pinot Noir, my experience is that you can expect most Pinot Noirs from California to show a pronounced “softening” after fifteen years. I think that is great, but I should admit to being a history major in college. Regardless of the wine, I would not subject a fifteen year old wine to an extra 24 hours of storage after opening. After that much aging, you cannot expect a wine that has expended most of its anti-oxidation resources to cope with the mass of oxygen introduced by removing the cork or other closure.

    To some extent, the choice of closure can enter into the aging formula. In the case of wines stored under hot and dry conditions, a traditional wine may exhibit a dry cork, a screwcap wine may exhibit an increase in sulfur aromas, and synthetic corks – well, they are not designed to age this long anyway.

    As wine consumers, we are trained to expect a pattern of long term wine aging that is based on our experiences with cork finished wine. Those were the conditions for almost all of the great wines mentioned by wine collectors and investors. Whether a change in closure type will support an equally celebrated experience with wine maturity remains to be seen.

    Peter Weber
    Cork Quality Council

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