Wines in this section are those that need or will improve with age. Some, as noted, may be quite drinkable now, but have the structure to age for at least the minimum period recommended, and often well beyond the stated maximum.
Note: Prices are Suggested Retail Price (srp), may vary in some markets
*Musings on aging wine.....*
A question I'm often asked: how do you know which wines improve with age, and which ones won't?
Not a quick answer, actually. Of course it's obvious with some wines--red Bordeaux in good vintages, California cabernets that cost more than $30 a bottle....serious syrahs, Rhône reds, Brunellos and Barolos, SuperTuscans, all are meant to improve with age and can do so 15, 20, 30 years, exhibiting complex aromas and flavors only hinted at in youth.
Most red wines that are balanced will certainly improve with bottle age, anywhere from 2-3 years for moderately priced ($15 to $20+) merlots, pinot noirs, syrahs to 5, 7, or 10 years for similarly priced cabernets, bigger syrahs and merlots, cabernet franc, sangiovese, claret blends. Even wines meant to drink young will often hold or improve with a few years on them. Recently I opened a three-year-old Barbera with robust and concentrated flavors. It was a little tough and tannic the first night, but the next night it was perfect--smooth and round, the tannins mellowed, the fruit more forward.
Some wine drinkers, however, like vigorous, muscular reds and like the tannin that gives the wines an edge. Chacun à son gout--to each his own taste. Yet I've had more than one person in my wine classes say to me--"I really like big young reds, but after the first sip or two I find I don't like them as much. Why is that?" It's because with the first sip or two you get the rich, ripe fruit of a big wine....but then the tannin comes up hard, builds on the palate and the wine just can't give any more--it needs aging to evolve and give more of what it promised. See B.E.'s Discoveries
Time in bottle does what nothing else can. Over time, whether it's two or three years, or 10, chemical changes occur--tannins soften and precipitate out, pigments darken and eventually lighten, creating sediment. I always decant wines 10 years old or older. But then I often decant very young wines when they seem stiff and tannic--the aeration can open them up and soften the tannins--aging them in a sense. This is why when you open a young red that is too young and tight to really enjoy, it may taste better the next night....or the next. One that recently did: Catena Malbec from Argentina, dark and opaque, quite tannic, somewhat hard when we opened it. The next night it was much softer and more appealing.
I make it a practice never to throw out a young red until I've tasted it the second or third day--if it hasn't improved I can toss it, but sometimes it's a revelation.
Wines for Winter Feasts:Cabernet Sauvignon
Roast Lamb or Beef: Many reds work with beef and lamb but fine Cabernet Sauvignon is a noble match. There are some excellent ones out there right now:
Jordan 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley. Elegantly structured, a little tauter than 2009, but still very approachable with dark berry fruit tinged with hints of licorice. 86% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot, 7% petit verdot, it is well-balanced, with excellent potential for complexity within a decade.
Dry Creek Vyd "The Mariner" 2010 Dry Creek Valley A classic Bordeaux blend, well - balanced but rich and lively, with blackberry, currant and spicy oak flavors; can only improve but drinks well now with roast lamb or beef.
Elizabeth Spencer 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Napa Valley. Classic Napa Valley Cabernet, with plum, black berries and cedary flavor notes, well-structured to age a decade or more but can accompany roast meats or game now. Tip: a nice gift for the North Carolina wine lover on your holiday list, since it is a namesake for our esteemed Chapel Hill author, Elizabeth Spencer.
Pinot Noir. A frequent pick with many of my favorite dishes....because its spicy, ruby-rich flavors so nicely complement roast fowl, game (especially duck, goose, wild turkey)
I love the various incarnations of Pinot Noir, from the taut well-structured wines of France's Burgundy regions -- the Côte de Nuits (richer, denser appellations such as Nuits-St. Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée) and the Côte de Beaune (the lighter but elegant Volnays, Beaunes) and Côtes Chalonnaise (earthier but simpler Givry, Mercurey), to the elegance and balance of Oregon Pinots, to the extravagant fruit of Sonoma's Russian River Valley and the engaging flavors of Pinots from California's central coast (Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Santa Lucia Highlands).
I think one of the things Pinot Noir/Burgundy fanatics love about the variety is a certain sauvage character--a kind of wildness of flavor that sometimes expresses as earthiness...or wild rose...wild berries rather than cultivated...a certain woodsiness (not woodiness)--that is, forest floor, woodlands after rain. When pinot noir is allowed to get too ripe this "wild" character is obliterated and the result is a ripe fruit bomb that could be almost any variety.
I'm a Pinot/Burgundy fanatic, so I love this flavor characteristic. It's showing now in the Merry Edwards 2010 Klopp Ranch, a wine of dense, brambly, wild cherry fruit. When I get that in RR Pinots, I'm thrilled, captivated--wish that I had more bottles because -- though very drinkable now, with the likes of grilled duck breast, roast loin of pork, even roast leg of lamb -- I think it will be even better with some bottle age (I recently tasted the 2007--nigh on to perfect!). This one is beautifully balanced, the key to aging, and likely will be even more interesting and intriguing from, say, 2016-2020.
At dinner with friends recently we opened their bottle of Merry Edwards 2002 Windsor Garden Vyd--wow! It was beautiful--aromatic, silky in texture, spicy flavors, smooth and long. Oh, the delights of aging!
M.E.'s current 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot ($39), the winery's lightest , is rich and luscious for drinking now, and I highly recommend it.
More Outstanding Pinot Noirs:
J Vineyards Misterra 2012, Russian River Valley Small amounts of Pinot Meunier and Pinotage inform this deep, svelte limited production red -- most likely found on high-end restaurant wine lists.
Trione 2011 Pinot Noir RRV Rich and dark with plush contours that make it quite enticing to drink now but well-balanced to develop complexity with 3 to 5 years more in bottle.
Rodney Strong 2013 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Very young; big and full-bodied; appealing spicy fruit with prominent acidity. A year or so in bottle will round that off nicely, but it worked well recently with a rich and somewhat fatty beef brisket.
If you are out in in Sonoma, be sure to include the Russian River Valley on your itinerary. Just out from Santa Rosa is Russian Hill Vineyards, a wine estate that commands a spectacular view of the eastern portion of the valley, with vineyards stretching in all directions--a must-visit if you find yourself in or near Santa Rosa.
Russian Hill 2012, RR Valley, $35. The basic Pinot from both estate and purchased grapes is a congenial and deliciously sippable red. If you want to introduce someone to the appeal of Pinot Noir, this is the place to start --a great choice for lighter meats, grilled porcini, or wild mushroom pastas.
Russian Hill Tara Vineyard 2010. This is my favorite Pinot from Russian Hill--consistently intriguing for its spicy fruit and excellent balance. The 2010 is quite beautiful, deeper and more structured than the other wines--intense dark cherry and ripe berry fruit with a nice grip of tannin and oak that accents but doesn't intrude. Probably even lovelier in two to three years, but try it now with roast duck or grilled duck breast.
Zins for hedonists.....
Sin Zin, Alexander Valley Vyds, $22, Alexander Valley, Sonoma. If the label doesn't seduce you, the wine in the bottle will--typically luxuriant ripe flavors and the heady aroma of blackberries, raspberries and black plums. Big and handsome, as this wine always is--powerful without being overwhelming.Old Vines. Sonoma has some of the oldest stands of Zinfandel in existence. These wines don't yield much--I'm reminded of what Spencer Tracy said about Katherine Hepburn in "Pat and Mike" -- "ain't much meat on her, but what's there is cherce." That's how it is with these 60, 80, 100-year-old vines, gnarled and thick, yielding up nectarlike juice that lends unique character to wines labeled "Old Vine." The first winery actually to use Old Vines on the label was Dry Creek Vineyards. Dry Creek Old Vines Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, $25, which is nicely packed with rustic blackberry and black raspberry fruit.
Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles, $28-30 Consistently a Ridge favorite. Bright, juicy berry flavors typical of Zins from the Paso Robles region on California's central coast; long finish,, very seductive.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2011 Zinfandel Somers Ranch, $32-38--be on the lookout for this hugely concentrated, powerful Zin--not a lot of it made. The very essence of Dry Creek Zinfandel, with intense berry flavors, accents of black pepper enveloped in big, rich fruit. More plentiful is Dry Creek 2010 Heritage Zinfandel -- less complex but very drinkable and appealing.
Other old-vine Zins to look for: Quivira, Cline, Rodney Strong Knotty Vines, Trentadue
NOTE: prices are suggested retail; they may often be found for less online.