Tagged with 'Fine Wine'

Wait, What, When - Part Four: The Rhône

The Rhône Valley has long been France’s best kept secret. Not only did it find an international following later than established regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux, but those regions historically would also smuggle in Rhône wines to adulterate their own, boosting ripeness and body in colder years. This practice was largely abandoned after WW2, but it sets a precedent: the Rhône Valley can ripen grapes pretty reliably.

Since ripeness is a big component of drinkability, one could surmise that all Rhône wines are good to go, no help needed, why should I even write this article? Well, just hold on there, buster. The Rhône valley is a big place with many villages, and each of them makes wines of particular character, there’s no catch-all rule regarding when to open your bottle. That’s where I come in.

As always, these are personal guidelines, based on years of drinking Rhône wines (and having spent time there). Let’s start with the Southern Rhône and the village that put it on the map:

Southern Rhône

Chateauneuf-du-Pape: One of the reasons for Chateauneuf’s popularity is its flexibility: most of the ageable wines also drink well young, you rarely pay a penalty for loss of willpower. That said, certain producers do make tighter wines, especially if they incorporate higher percentages of Mourvèdre, which adds considerable tannin to a blend. If the Chateauneuf is mostly Grenache – as many are – then have at ‘er.

Gigondas: Chateauneuf’s sassy cousin from the other side of the valley is a steep incline from the valley floor up to the Dentelles mountain range. Favouring Grenache, many Gigondas are ready to go, except for the wines – usually the priciest – that come exclusively from the higher plots above the village. Those wines will usually feature the vineyard name on the label, so if it just says “Gigondas” you’re probably in the clear. Enjoy.

Lirac: Across the river from Chateauneuf, Lirac offers similar blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault) that are both more austere on the nose and less structured. With only a few exceptions, I’ve found Lirac to be accessible upon release, and great comparative value.

Tavel: A Rosé that was raised by wolves, the wines of Tavel are comprised of the same grape varieties as their valley-mates, with all the body and the structure, but pink. Besides the combat-wines of Bandol, this is the only still French Rosé that benefits from a few years nap – say, 6-7 years from the harvest date. If you open it young, drink it with rich food.

Cairanne: This valley-floor village specializes in deliciosity. Good to go and have fun.

Vacqueyras: Adjacent to Gigondas’ lowest border, Vacqueyras serves up valley-floor yumness, dive in. Vinsobres: This tiny hamlet at the north end of the southern Rhône makes curiously dense, structured wine that can be drunk early with protein, but can benefit from a couple years down – 5 years from harvest date is perfect.

White Chateauneuf-du-Pape: These luxurious festivals of sin tend to see more barrel time than the reds, and that micro-oxygenation – often accompanied by malolactic fermentation – softens the texture considerably. Picture the shape and weight of a Russian River Chardonnay, but with different aromatics. These are generally good to go, even from producers who avoid malo and oak in order to make zippier wines.

Côtes-du-Rhône White/Red: These are some of the best values in France. Food friendly and ready to drink.

Northern Rhône

Hermitage: The spiritual home of Syrah, and one of the world’s most famous Wine Hills, alongside Corton and Montrachet in acclaim and price tag. There are a selected few producers – mostly co-operatives – that make drinkable young Hermitage (can also be spelled “Ermitage” for peeps with H allergies), but on the whole these are cellar investments, released as tight time capsules that must slowly unwind over 10-15 years. A 20-year-old Hermitage is an exhilarating dose of beauty.

Crozes-Hermitage: From the partially-chomped-donut area around Hermitage, Crozes was initially introduced as a cheaper, drinkable alternative to those hill wines, but certain producers have taken the Syrah from this appellation to much higher levels of quality and longevity, so you should ask nice wine store people like me which ones are which.

Cornas: One of the few Rhône appellations shielded from the cooling Mistral winds, Cornas trends hotter than most villages – it’s usually the first place to get harvested – and the Syrah from there is deeper, darker, thicker, and generally rounder than most other northern Rhône Syrah. Some producers favour heavier tannins, but even then the fruit weight often balances everything out. If you’re not sure, wait an additional 2-3 years, but most Cornas is pretty crushable when young.

Saint-Joseph: A big, sprawling appellation that makes some very good wines – some of the northern Rhône’s best values can be found here – but there’s not really a consistency to the style of Saint-Joseph, so there’s no common wisdom as to drinking windows. I’d say look at the producer’s overall style: if they make super-structured wines elsewhere, they probably do here too.

Côte-Rôtie: Closest to Hermitage in shape and longevity, Côte-Rôtie differs in its composition: it’s the only northern Rhône appellation where small amounts of white Viognier are regularly added to the Syrah. Accordingly, these are wines with high acidity on top of high tannins, and although they become drop-dead-gorgeous swans after 10-15 years past the harvest date, you should avoid drinking them young, at least if you enjoy having teeth.

Condrieu: The birthplace (we surmise) of Viognier, and one of the few premium white wines not usually intended to age. Gloriously aromatic, rich and generous, Condrieu is lower in acidity, an important component for longevity, and the youthful fruit is so gorgeous you wouldn’t want to lose it. There is, admittedly, an argument for aged Condrieu, usually argued by strange weirdos. Drink it and smile.

White Hermitage: Completely producer-dependant. While virtually every white Hermitage is a thing of beauty, not every one has the same drinking window, and it usually comes down to composition. If a white Hermitage is predominantly Marsanne, wait at least 10 years past the harvest date. If it’s half Marsanne and half Roussanne, you’re probably safe. Marsanne is the bones and Roussanne is the flesh, so the more Roussanne there is, the rounder the wine will be.

 

 

Wait, What, When - Part Three: Tuscany

The Etruscans, Tuscany’s original inhabitants before those tacky Romans took over, were making delicious wines back around the time when my Scottish ancestors had discovered the Spoon. The following recommendations, therefore, come not from a native Italian but from someone in love with Tuscan wines who has been collecting them for two decades. It’s a jump ball though, because there’s no general consensus amongst Italians anyway, whenever you see them arguing animatedly with their hands flying, they’re debating when to open a Brunello. Yes, every single time.

As always, these are personal preferences that are incredibly prone to exceptions: if you can think of a contradictory example, you get zero points Gryffindor because there are lots. These guidelines have served me well, hopefully you find the same. All wines listed are red.

Chianti: if you see a red wine labeled “Chianti” with no further words, order a pizza and pop the cork. Drink it confidently and maybe even let the pizza have some.

Chianti Classico: Tuscany’s OG wine region can tend to produce more structured Sangiovese, but unless you see more words like “Riserva” or “Gran Selezione”, it’s probably good to go, although some of the better producers’ offerings can age nicely for 8 years or so.

Chianti Classico Riserva: Entirely producer-dependant. The stricter regs for a Riserva do, in theory, lead to a more structured, ageable wine, but I’ve found that a majority of Riservas are ready to drink upon release, even if they can age further. Certain very traditional producers will make Riservas that need a few years, but these are pretty rare and usually pricey. In fact the “Riserva” designation for Chianti became so nebulous and unhelpful that they invented a new designation:

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione: Here are the Time Capsules. With rare exceptions, every Gran Selezione I’ve tried has been coiled like a scary snake upon release, and needs at least 5 years further to reach any balance. I don’t want to scare you away, though, Gran Selezione is some of Tuscany’s best cellaring value on our market.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: And here’s the other amazing cellaring value for Tuscan reds. Using a local clone of Sangiovese called Prugnolo Gentile, Vino Nobile tends to be fairly tannic in its youth, needing at least 5-8 years to soften. Once it does, though, you’ll experience high levels of Deliciosity.

Brunello di Montalcino: Like Barolo, the simple/safe rule with Brunello is to look at the vintage and add ten years, because the ones that needed time should be opening (with some exceptions of course), and the wines that were ready to drink will still be delicious. In truth, however, there are other metrics at work. It’s producer-dependant, for sure, but even more influence is imposed on a Brunello by geography. Find a Brunello wine map on Google images, one that shows where the wineries are. The appellation of Montalcino is kinda circle/square shaped, centred around the town of Montepulciano in the middle. Try to imagine that you’re looking down on a pyramid, with the town at the top, it’ll give you a sense of the altitude differences between different houses. Now divide that map into 3 horizontal bands: North, Middle and South:

The South band has lower altitudes, retains heat and tends to make riper, earlier drinking Brunello.

The Middle band has the highest altitudes and the most dramatic temperature shifts. These wines should likely be cellared at least 10 years.

The North band is a salad. Many of these Brunellos need time in bottle, but some don’t, it depends on who made it. This 3-band method isn’t perfect, but it has largely held true over the years.

Bolgheri: These coastal red wines made with Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are, without exception, capable of aging beautifully, and many of them need to. If you’re not sure, practice the 10-year-rule to be safe.

Maremma: The south coast of Tuscany makes too many kinds of wines to warrant any consistent guide, except maybe this: if your Maremma costs more than $80, I’d consider giving it a nap, at least 2 years. Under $80? Go for it. Save me some.

Toscana I.G.T.: These non-traditional Tuscan wines – known in our part of the world as “Super Tuscans” – are almost impossible to categorize because the Toscana IGT designation is a catch-all term for Tuscan wines that don’t qualify for traditional titles like Chianti, Brunello, etc. They are defined not by what they are, but what they are not. So they could be anything, any grape, any style, and can be sold at any price – there are a few very expensive examples – making it impossible to judge the right opening time. I’d say above $100 and you’ll probably want to wait, but it’s entirely producer dependant.

 

 

Wait, What, When - Part Two: Northern Italy

The wines of northern Italy can often pull off the hard trick of being seductive and elusive at the same time. The best way to ascertain when to drink them remains asking the person who sold you the bottle (author pauses to point both his thumbs at himself in a “this guy” motion). But maybe you were gifted a bottle, or purchased a wine from the winery after a few too many “samples”? And now you’re staring at it, waiting for it to tell you when to open it (it needs more “samples” to start talking)? We can help.

What follows is a subjective, non-scientific guide to northern Italian drinking windows. I have been collecting and drinking these wines for decades, and these parameters have served me well. If I’m wrong, I am deliciously so, and I take nothing back.

Amarone Della Valpolicella: The iconic drying process that happens in the making of Amarone concentrates flavours, body and intensity, and it would certainly concentrate tannins if the grapes they used had any. Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara – the grapes that must comprise the majority of Amarones, aren’t very tannic to begin with so the resulting wine won’t elbow you in the teeth. What does get supercharged is the fruit weight, so even if we somehow ended up with lots of tannins, they would be eclipsed by the round body.

This means that almost all Amarones are good to go upon release. They will drink loudly and powerfully – that’s their M.O. – but there will be balance. Can Amarone age? Absolutely, by sheer concentration it can. But before you invest time in aging them, ask yourself these 2 questions:

1. How long are you willing to wait? Unlike other Italian reds, Amarone takes a loooooong time to show any significant development. Tertiary notes don’t generally surface until at least 15 years from harvest date. Once they do, you’ll be confronted with the next question:

2. Do you like aged Amarone? There’s seldom any out there to buy, but the two dozen or so I’ve tried were….neat? Like, academically delicious more than practically so. It’s cool how many Amarones develop a sweet soy note as they get older but it comes at the expense of fruit and, as noted, fruit is the star of the show, it’s an altogether different wine once removed. If your answer is “yes, by Merlin’s Beard I adore old Amarone” then by all means age them, but for the rest of us, I say drink it upon purchase or hold up to 10 years. Yes, even the Riservas.

Ripasso Della Valpolicella: The wines that live in the nebulous cloud between a straight Valpolicella and an Amarone can be made several different ways: maybe they’ll dry the grapes halfway, not long enough to be called Amarone, or maybe they’ll use the crushed Amarone skins to re-ferment a Valpolicella, but the wines will have one constant: with rare exceptions they drink right away.

Valpolicella: If it doesn’t say Superiore then drink it. If it says Superiore… you know what? Life is short and joy fleeting. Drink that one too.

Soave: these white wines of the Veneto, made from the noble Garganega grape, are almost always born in the zone. A precious few producers in the Soave Classico appellation will make ageable wines, but the near totality of them can drink early – even if they have the capability to age.

Lugana: These top-level Trebbiano-based whites from Lake Garda are almost always accessible, even the Riservas.

Pinot Grigio: You know the answer to this, or at least your hands do: look, you’ve already opened it.

Friuli Whites: Be they Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or other grapes, the white wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, criminally overlooked in our market – are gloriously drinkable now. Some of the more sublimely layered offerings can go 15 years but can still be opened with no penalty at any time.

Friuli Reds: Ribollo Gialla, Schioppettino, Refosco, nearly every one of these charming reds is good to go, at least the ones I’ve found in our market.

Barolo: OK. Deep breath. Let’s divide the room into two groups:

  • Team A: “I want to get granular and understand the styles and terroirs of Barolo”. Awesome. Skip to the next large paragraph.

  • Team B: “I came to drink good wine, not to talk about dirt. Be gone, Nerds!!”. Totally fair. In that case, remember this: Look at the vintage on the Barolo bottle and add ten years. Your window starts there, if it was traditional-style it should be just opening, if it was modern it’ll still be fresh and delicious. You’re all done, kindly skip to Barbaresco.

So, Team A nerds, the first rule is to know your producers. “Modern” houses use quick controlled pressing/ferments and age their Nebbiolo in French Barriques (225L) to micro-oxygenate the wines towards softer structure, stronger fruit and earlier drinking, although they certainly can age decades – you have the choice. “Traditional” producers allow for long macerations and fermentations before aging the Nebbiolo in large vessels called “Botti” (5000L). This makes wines with unintegrated acids and tannins – ageing is required unless you like to drink kicks to the head. Which is better? That’s a personal decision. Do Barolo bottles say “Modern” or “Traditional”? Lol no they would never do that so again, ask your merchant. There is, however, another way to make an educated guess if merchant is missing:

The soil composition of Barolo can be delineated right down the middle of the appellation: Tortonian soils in the western half can lead to softer, more perfumed wines. Helvetian soils in the east can produce much more tannic Nebbiolo with deeper fruits. Do the bottles say “Tortonian” or Helvetian”? Lol no they would never do that, but they’ll often name the commune it’s from. The Barolo appellation is split into several small communes, and the major ones might be familiar:

La Morra or Barolo communes are on the west side, so often softer, drinking 8 years past harvest date.
Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba and Castiglione Falletto lie eastern, thus born angry. 10-15 years past harvest date.
Is it that simple? Lol no they would never do that – you can have a Modern producer make an approachable Monforte d’Alba, or a Traditional La Morra that sucker punches you and steals your car. Triangulating the producer with the commune is the best way to figure out a target date, however, and that Team B 10 year rule is correct more than it isn’t. If it’s a Barolo Riserva however, all bets are off. Bury that thing before it goes after your cat.

Barbaresco: Barolo’s cousin from up the road can for our purposes be described as “Barolo, only slightly less so”. Barolo speeds, Barbaresco goes the speed limit, and that’s often a good thing. 8 years past harvest date is a safe bet, although the Modern/Traditional piece still applies, and Riservas are still Time Capsules. The younger, accessible Barbarescos can be sheer happiness.

Gattinara:These sub-Alpine Nebbiolo wines are generally released with functional claws but they sing beautifully after cellaring. At least 8 years unless you’re pairing them with batteries.

Valtellina: the Nebbiolo (local name Chiavennasca) from I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Switzerland is a thing of beauty, but entirely producer-dependant when it comes to drinking windows. I’ve had generously balanced young Valtellina, but some really do need time. The semi-dried Sforzato di Valtellina wines can amplify the tannins, I find they need 10 years past harvest date to settle into themselves.

Roero Rosso: Nebbiolo’s petting zoo. These round red wines are almost always ready, even the Riservas.

Roero Arneis (White): There is an argument to be made for aging these delightfully astringent white wines, but it’s a one-sided argument for whoever makes it because my mouth is full of Arneis.

Gavi: the Cortese-based white wines from Piedmont are almost always ready.

Barbera: Whether from Asti or Alba, most Barbera are round enough to drink young, even if they do boast significant tannins. Some Riservas need time but that’s producer-dependant. The main exception for Barbera is:

Nizza: If you’re Barbera, this is Boardwalk and Park Place rolled into one. Wines from the world’s Barbera Capital have a 50/50 chance of drinking early, but even if they need time it’ll be like 8 years past harvest date.

Dolcetto: If the tables were turned, this wine would drink you in a heartbeat. Dig in.

 

 

Wait, What, When - Part One: USA

For those of us who collect wine, there comes a time of high anxiety where we look upon our flock of prized chickens and decide which one will be dinner. Good friends are coming over – ones who appreciate a nice bottle and won’t gulp it down like Tang (not that I bear a grudge, Wayne and Brigitte) – and hey wow you’ve been staring at the same bottles for twenty minutes. What to open? What’s ready to drink? What goes with dinner?

The bad news is that although the process a wine undergoes over time is science, there’s no exact science to determine a wine’s readiness besides opening it. The good news is that I drink a lot of wine and I’ve noticed some patterns over the years. What follows is accordingly my personal take on what to open and when, but let me first address some caveats:

1- There are no absolute truths in wine: any rule or truism, no matter how accurate, will have exceptions to it. You might think of contradictions to many of my points, but those are baked into the pie, so there’s no reason to tell me and try to make me sad.

2- Why do we keep wine? To make it better. If a wine is delicious, balanced and tastes developed, why are you waiting? For sure, a special occasion deserves a special bottle – those parameters are yours to decide – but from a purely gastronomic perspective, if all the boosters are firing then launch, commander.

3 – It is better to drink a wine too young than too old. Yes, drinking it too young is like missing the last 20 minutes of a movie, but overshooting the wine’s peak is missing the entire movie plus the theatre smells like mothballs and regret.

With that out of the way, here are my thoughts regarding what to open when, starting with the USA:

Reds

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: Producer dependant, but excepting the Bordeaux-aligned houses (Dominus, Opus, etc.) I find that 15 years past harvest date is as long as I’d leave it because we don’t want to lose too much of that youthful fruit. Even the stratospheric cult Cabs usually have more fruit weight than structure (and whoa nelly do they have structure) so this is one of those categories where you don’t pay much of a penalty for tucking in too early, and that’s why I never have much Napa in my cellar despite buying it frequently.

Napa Merlot: Do it. Fortune favours the brave. Can it age? Like, probably? It has honestly never come up. So decadently gratifying when it’s young, its hair has never greyed. First to get thrown in the volcano.

Napa Pinot Noir: Mostly house-trained but the odd producer will jack the structure so look at 5 years from harvest date if you want to play safe. Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon: Can be leaner and more structure-forward than Napa. Drinkability unironically seems to conform to how much you spent on it. Over $100? Best to wait 10 years past harvest date. Under $100? Largely home free.

Sonoma Pinot Noir Russian River: Your luxury Cherry-Cola-Bath is ready for you, master. Structure can vary but the sweet fruit almost always overcomes it. Go and sploosh.

Sonoma Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast: Entirely producer dependant. I’ve tried coastal Pinots (Sonoma Coast AVA, Fort Ross-Seaview AVA etc.) that drank like security blankets, but New School producers (Rhys, RAEN, Wayfarer etc.) favour brightness, planting in the coolest spots they can find and picking earlier. These need a few years to integrate the acids, but they’ll be fab.

Santa Barbara / Santa Maria Valley / Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir: With a few exceptions, have at ’er. Built to smile.

Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon: No penalty that I’ve found for opening it early, but some of the more premium bottles can become pretty darn charming after 8 or 9 years past harvest date.

Paso Robles Rhone-Style: Here be dragons. Generally found on the ultra-premium side, these Syrah/Grenache blends – they used to call the ones mixed with Cab “Crazy Blends” until I went there and no they don’t – tend to be fruit dominant but if you drink them too early, there are other passengers on the train. Savoury, gamey notes alongside earthy vibes – these are highly desirable but only once integrated with the fruit and structure, drunk young all of these elements are too individually loud. Since most of these wines are bulletproof, wait at least 10 years past harvest date to enjoy something truly sublime.

Lodi Cabernet / Zinfandel / Petit Sirah: This place can ripen rocks. Brilliant value for full-bodied drinkers, with complexity and character. I’ve never found one that wasn’t good to go.

Central Coast Reds: With the caveat that the potentially more age-worthy bottles don’t tend to come up here (there are abundances of tiny producers up and down the coast), anything I’ve come across from Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Carmel etc. has been a pleasurable, immediate experience.

California Zinfandel: With the exception of a few houses that treat Zin like Burgundy (Bedrock, Turley) you can jump in, the water’s fine. I’ve tried 40-year-old Zin (Clos du Val) before and it’s very cool, but that’s a lot to ask from a grape that came to the party looking for kicks, not commitment.

California Blends: Such a nebulous category, where literally anything can happen. Most of these are made to drink, but there are a few that take their cues from their European cousins and reward long-term cellaring. The labels can serve as signposts, here: if the name is wacky, clever or sarcastic, drink it. If the label is colourful or has an animal on it, drink it. If the label is minimalist, uses cursive, and resembles a wedding invitation to Downton Abbey, it’s probably a good idea to hold onto it. It’s not exact, but you’d be surprised how accurate that method is.

Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: Oregon’s State Bird Pinot Noir was once a reliable early drinker, but in the last decade or so it has become increasingly producer dependant as certain producers have tacked more faithfully towards their Burgundian muses. This largely hues to the price scale as well, if you paid more than $100 for Willamette Pinot, maybe look up the drinking date? If you find yourself with a “keeper”, you’ll be very well rewarded art the 8-to-12 year mark.

Washington Cabernet Sauvignon: Washington producers would loathe that I lumped in all their Cabs into one slot, and they’re right, but gosh we’re all kinda busy so let’s say this: if your Washington Cab says Horse Heaven Hills or Red Mountain, there’s a very good chance it’s embryonic and you should ad 10-20 years to the harvest date. If it says Columbia Valley then use the similar method as the Sonoma Cabs – If it cost over $100, hold it. If it cost under $50, drink it. Between $50 and $100, look up the producer and count how many times their website says “elegant”.

Washington Merlot: Some of the best Merlot produced on this pale blue dot. Buy and drink more of this, but only if you like happiness.

Washington Syrah: These strikingly bold and beautiful wines are – IMO – the most ageable wines that Washington makes. Even if they’re drinkable early, they’ll invariably develop into something more impressive. 10 years from harvest date at least.

Whites

Napa Chardonnay: There are people who love to age these 10 years. I can’t hear them because I’m too busy gulping down Napa Chardonnay.

Sonoma Chardonnay Russian River: There are a few producers making ageable wines in RRV, but it’s still a predominantly drinkable style (VERY drinkable).

Sonoma Chardonnay Sonoma Coast: Just like the Pinots, this depends on the producer, as many are leaning into the more elegant, Burgundy-inspired structures, thus needing about 8-10 years from harvest date to integrate. This method is far from exact, but look at where the vineyards are, more inland and the fruit trends rounder, more towards the ocean things can get more saline and mineral with higher acids. Cellaring these are very rewarding and are excellent value compared to Burgundy.

Santa Barbara / Santa Maria Valley / Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay: The pricier ones can integrate nicely if cellared for 7-9 years, but I’ve found that the majority of these velvety Chards are a glorious Butter Bath, open for business.

California Sauvignon Blanc: Haven’t found one that wasn’t ready and yum.

California Viognier: Is it possible to drink this before opening it? If so, do that.

Oregon Chardonnay: While there are some buttery, glugable options for Oregonian Chard, I’ve largely found these to be some of the best cellaring whites in the US. Even if everything is balanced in youth, the fresh structures keep things vibrant while the aromas get more complex. Try 8-10 years from harvest date.

Washington Chardonnay: Some absolute gems here, but it’s a fairly inconsistent category, style wise, so look up the producer to gauge age-worthiness.