I make the analogy of going to the wine shop like a kid going to a candy store. I want one of everything and have a habit of buying several bottles of each so I can taste and evaluate them over time. Now, while the cellar is organized and I use an Excel spreadsheet to categorize my treasures, there are usually some bottles that are overlooked and may still be awesome or may be past their prime.
Earlier this year, in the spirit of cleaning things out, we hosted a ‘Decade Party’ where we tasted all wines from the 2010 vintage. The selections were from all around the world and ultimately from our cellar(s) so we knew they had been stored properly. Making a list of the 2010 wines on hand, I then made pairs of similar wines (by varietal, region or by food pairing options). With a dozen attendees, we split up the list and dishes were prepared to showcase the wine(s).
As with any ‘over the hill’ wine tasting, you end up learning a lot. Just for fun, here is the list of the wines we enjoyed:
Chateau Saint Cosme Gigondas $55 WS 95 (corked)
Perrin Les Cornuds Vinsobres $20 WS 91
Solaria Patrizia Cencioni Brunello di Montalcino $45 JS 95
Linio Sassetti ‘Pertimali’ Brunello di Montalcino $170 JS 100 (exceptional)
Monte Del Fra Valpolicella Classico Ripasso $24 WS 89 (corked)
McLaren Vale Grenache Australia – Chapel Hill $28 WS 89
Prado Enea Grand Reserva Muga Rioja $60 JS 99 (exceptional)
Dogliani Barolo – Axidena Agricola La Fusina $49 WE 93 (exceptional)
Robert Giraud Chateau Timberlay Bordeaux Superior $48 WS 87
Saint-Estephe Lafon-Rochet $69 WS 89
Pine Ridge ‘Tessitura’ Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend $46 WS 89
Steven Kent Merlot $ unknown Not Rated (corked)
Of the 12 wines, 3 were corked (fault = TCA) which is 25% of the wines tasted. While professionals vary in opinion as to the percentage of corked bottles normally encountered, it is generally in the 3 - 8% range. If a wine is defective due to the cork, the problem took place the moment the cork was inserted into the bottle. Our sample size with the large percentage of corked bottles is simply an outlier. TCA does not happen with time; it immediately affects the wine. Since the TCA presented itself from slightly corked to awful, it gave the group practice in identifying the TCA flaw and how it can vary.
There were three wines that were still in the ‘hold or ready-to-drink’ category, exhibiting classic markers for the varietal and lovely on the palate. I have noted ‘exceptional’ by these wines. Please note that price is not necessarily a factor in determining if a wine will last for an extended period. The ability of a wine to age is influenced by many factors which include the grape variety, vintage, viticulture practices, acidity, tannins, wine region, winemaking style, etc. For these 3 wines, Barolo (Italy), Brunello (Italy) and Tempranillo (Rioja, Spain), they all normally exhibit medium plus to high levels of tannins and medium plus to high levels of acidity, which in my opinion, the acidity being the ‘fountain of youth’ of wine.
Of the remaining 6 wines, some presented a bit of an ‘over the hill’ character but most were drinkable, enjoyable and a nice pairing to the accompanying dish. This is where personal preference comes into the equation and the ability to compare, contrast and evaluate teaches you by experience about the life of a wine. There are very few wines, in my humble opinion, that are still grand at the end of the extended period some professionals tout wine will last.
The Perrin Les Cornuds Vinsobres from the Rhone Valley of France was a $20 purchase that still rocked 10 years later. While the 2010 vintage was an exceptional one, the terroir of Vinsobres is particularly suitable for Syrah as it preserves the finesse which is often lost in more southern, warmer climates. It develops notes of violet, smoked meat and blackberries. Grenache is also suited to this terroir, full bodied and not heavy, with notes of chocolate, cherry and typical Garrigue aromas. A blend of Syrah and Grenache, this was a lovely wine.
The Sainte-Estephe Lafon-Rochet, a Fourth Growth Bordeaux, at $69 was a bit of a disappointment. It was very dark and intense in color, exhibited muted fruit, but on the palate, encountered a gritty, chalky character that felt like the phenolics in the wine precipitating out of solution. I have other bottles of this wine and will have to re-evaluate at another time. This wine definitely did not rock my world.
I could continue, but it’s time for you to take a good look at your cellar and pick out wines that you believe you may have held too long. Make a list of the vintage, country, region, producer and hopefully, that list is not too terribly long. Make a second list of the remaining wines so you know what you still have and are wines you believe can wait a while to be consumed. For the ‘over the hill’ wines, place them into groupings. I would suggest:
You can then approach your tasting a couple different ways. Gather all like wines (varietal or country/region or vintage) and begin to taste! For our tasting, we focused on 4 elements:
Visual – Anything floating, wine cloudy? Color correct for the varietal?
Nose – Fruit present? Fresh? Dried? Dessicated/Moldy?
Wood – Oak? What kind? Floral – What kind?
Earth – Wet? Dried? None?
Balance – Acid, Sugar, Tannin – balanced or does one overpower?
Finish – how long? (usually 20 to 30 seconds)
I know it would be so much more fun to do this with friends; however, take notes, take a wine each night (or every so many nights) and do your evaluation. Taking notes will help you compare and contrast and figure out which wines you think are still good and which are over the hill. You will learn a lot about the wines, your particular tastes as you may find you really don’t like wines from certain areas or you no longer like Zinfandel, etc., and the bonus is you will have a cleaned out cellar! Enjoy the journey…then, on to that coat closet…
If you want to tell us about your experience in cleaning out your cellar, I invite you to share your comments with us or ask questions to help you along on your journey!
by Claire L. Torbeck, Certified Sommelier
About The Author
I am a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and a student in the Diploma Program of the WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust). I am the Cellar Master for the International Wine & Food Society Lake Tahoe where I purchase and manage a cellar of 1,200 - 1,500 bottles ($75,000 - $100,000), similar to a small restaurant inventory. I develop and deliver educational seminars for winery staff, clubs and enthusiasts and judge at various wine competitions around California.
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