Today, almost everybody drinks wines sold a year or so after they’re bottled. This is what’s available at the wine store or in restaurants by the glass or bottle. Older wines are often listed on a separate list and cost hundreds of dollars.
This means that fewer people get the chance to drink wines that are more than five years old.
While younger wines can provide delightful, fresh flavors to be enjoyed now, the better ones, especially reds, often will offer a whole new spectrum of flavors with aging. That’s why wine lovers assemble their own wine cellars or collections — to enjoy bottles from the same vintage both now and later.
So drinkers who never or rarely taste aged wines will not only miss out on an important wine experience, but they won’t want to start their own collections.
A different taste
In general, younger wines taste fresh and old ones taste more complex; youth offers primary flavors, which are closer to the taste of the grape itself. Not all white wines are candidates for aging; generally, whites from cool climate regions with an optimal sugar and acidity balance can age, as will white wines from Burgundy and a handful of other regions, along with many dessert styles. As red wine ages, tannins soften, the color changes and becomes browner, and a series of chemical processes begin. The phenolics begin to come together, for example, and then precipitate out of the wine, leaving sediment behind. Throughout the aging process, secondary and tertiary flavors emerge and the fruit fades, and leather, savory, and earthy characters may come to the fore.
Maria Larrea, winemaker at CVNE, describes how one of her Rioja Reservas tastes: “The fruit will have faded, but there should be some there — at least a recollection. The tannin is soft but present, and the same but more so with the acidity. The nose is complex and reminds you of meat sauce, a wet forest, spices, an old cathedral in Spain.”
Corks also age and tend to crumble when they are being pulled. A spiral corkscrew can tear one apart, so use a two-prong puller instead.
Anyone used to drinking younger, fresher wines, may find it takes time to learn to appreciate the flavors of older wines. Fortunately, there are plenty of well-priced aged wines on the market available to try.
The analog world
Many brick-and-mortar retail shops have bottles available that are more than five years old, some making their way to the clearance bin, especially if there is only a bottle or two of the vintage left.
Total Wine & More, a 30-year-old chain with 229 stores in 27 U.S. states, has the finances to buy in volume and has long specialized in purchasing whole vintages from wineries, especially in Bordeaux, and allotting them among its various shops for as little as $30 a bottle.
The same buying power is exercised in the 17 states which have state-run wine and spirits monopolies, such as the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Supervisor Josh Hull says that for those looking for older wines, “There are many regions to try, but you should be able to find Tempranillo-based reds from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and others that have extended bottle age at under $30 a bottle, and many even far less expensive.”
Rioja requires its Gran Reserva wines be aged for at least five years, so they are already older wines by the time they are available. Some other areas of Spain and northern Italy have similar legal requirements.
Most American wineries also hold back a portion of each vintage to age in their cellars and be sold later, either in their tasting rooms or online. One of the most-noted is Silver Oak, which produces only CabernetSauvignons from Napa Valley and Sonoma County. David Duncan, whose father Ray started the winery in 1972 with Justin Meyer, likes to show a 1973 memo from Meyer to his father outlining a plan to save back wine from each vintage.
“The purpose being,” Meyer writes, “if we follow this program each year, at the end of five years we would be selling a five-year-old Silver Oak, but would also have for sale limited quantities of 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10-year old wines concurrently.” Duncan says, “We still have available some wines from the 1990s and a significant supply from the early 2000s.”
Many wineries also offer in-person library tastings where visitors can try older vintages before purchasing.
Some European wineries, especially in classic areas such as Bordeaux, will also bottle age their wines for five years or more in their own cellars, maturing them somewhat before they are sold. A few will do more than one release of their wines, cellaring wines for staged releases or “tranches.”
“We hold back inventory after bottling in order to do several re-releases when the vintage is in a good drinking window,” says Nicolas Seillan, general manager at Château Lassègue in Saint-Émilion. “Restaurants, retailers, and private clients thus have the option between a younger and older vintage, or to take advantage of both. This year, we’re focusing on the 2014 as a library release along with the 2018 current vintage.” The Rhône Valley’s Chêne Bleu holds its red wines Heloise and Abelard even longer, just now planning to release the 2013.
However, there is no clearinghouse of information on which wineries hold back wines, so this is where having a good relationship with an independent retailer becomes extremely valuable, as they can often source older wines on their customers’ behalf.
The online option
For 20 years, Dave Parker and his staff at Benchmark Wines have purchased collections of wines; today there are about 60,000 bottles to choose from, many dating to before Parker opened his business in 2002. Prices can be affordable, too. For example, a 1997 Anderson’s Conn Valley Napa Valley Valhalla Pinot Noir was available recently for $39, a 1998 Castiglion del Bosco Rosso di Montalcino for $30, and a half-bottle of highly upscale 2003 Château Sociando-Mallet, now sold out, from Bordeaux for $27.
“We have three types of buyers,” Parker says, “investors for highly valued wines, people who want to experience older wines without waiting for 20 years in their cellars, and young folks who want to learn and often get together to splurge on one bottle for a special event.” For those willing to wait a little longer, Benchmark also offers reduced pre-arrival prices for some imported wines that have not yet reached its California warehouse.
Russ Mann, CEO of WineBid, explains his company also buys wine collections but sells them through a series of online auctions which last a week. While Sotheby’s and Christie’s are noted for million-dollar live wine auctions, Mann says WineBid “is the oldest digital wine auction,” having started in 1996. “We auction about 250,000 bottles a year at an average price of $100 a bottle.”
Bidders can search for wines by region, winery, vintage, and price. As an example, a recent auction offered 335 wines still available at under $39 a bottle, including a 2000 Marchesi Antinori Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva available at $25.
Do it yourself
It should be noted, of course, that not every wine ages well, and even those which do will eventually pass their peaks. “You could have the experience of a lifetime with an aged wine, or you can be underwhelmed,” warns the PLCB’s Hull. “It depends on what your preference is. It’s a real risk-reward thing.”
If you have the space, one way to learn more about wine aging is to buy a 12-bottle case of your favorite wine. Drink a portion of it now, and put the rest aside, to be opened at the rate of a bottle a year.
This is a method that obviously takes time — but wine knowledge, like wine itself, is something that takes time, but which offers rich rewards.
4 aged wines worth buying now:
Fresh, rounded, tangy flavors of dark cherries and cassis lead to a lean, leathery finish with beautiful notes of aging barrels and integrated tannins — perfect for a rare steak.
This wine has held at its aging plateau for several years, showing dark cherries and cranberries with a hint of raisins and a lean, lightly tannic finish — still a very beautiful wine.
A Syrah and Grenache blend, it offers an enticing panoply of flavors — blackberries, blueberries, peach, and orange peel, leather, bitters — that provide vibrant fruitiness, yet with tangy, savory acidity in the finish.