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Better with Age

By Michael Schiaparelli · January 21st, 2009 · Fermentations
Tags: wine

I’m often asked whether a particular bottle will “improve” with age. Of course, all wines change with time: Tannins resolve (or soften) while primary fruit characteristics fade, allowing subtle, complex attributes to show. Whether this evolution results in a “better” wine is largely a matter of personal taste. Think of it as the difference between appreciating the beauty of a young model and adoring those deeper characteristics that make women of a certain age so attractive. Which is “better”?

Now, opening older bottles tends to remind one of the joys — and hazards — of cellaring wine. Last month, with my wife’s timpano (an Italian delicacy celebrated in the Stanley Tucci film Big Night), we opened a 1998 La Licenziana Barbaresco that was slightly madeirized, a term used to describe wines that pick up an oxidized, nutty flavor when aged too long. (Though it was flawed, it actually paired nicely with the savory, nutty crust of the timpano.)

Luckily, we had a 1997 Pio Cesare Barolo as a back-up, and it was spectacular. Its big, velvety palate showed loads of dried cherry fruit and hints of sweet milk chocolate and liquid tar.

The texture was perfect — tannic and gently acidic enough to remind you it was Nebbiolo, but silky and juicy enough to be crowd-pleasingly enjoyable.

For Christmas, we opened a 1997 Ch. St. Jean “Cinq Cepages” — a blend of various Bordeaux varietals — that was drinking beautifully. Its dark garnet heart was now surrounded by very slight ambering, and it showed an earthy nose of truffles, tobacco and spice. Medium-bodied and elegantly Bordeaux-like, the palate revealed lingering dark plum and blackberry fruit, though cedar, espresso and Asian spices all blossom through the mid-palate. A 1996 Chappellet “Signature” Napa Cabernet was equally terrific — with fully integrated tannins, it was smooth as glass with a nose and palate filled with currants and plums, herbs, black licorice, cedar and tobacco.

My father-in-law opened a 1977 Bertani Amarone Recioto della Valpolicella Classico Superiore Classico, a classic Italian blend of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara. Color indicates a wine’s age, and its dark garnet thinned at the edge and showed ambering throughout. Along with classic cherry fruit, the expressive nose revealed figs, raisins and vanilla. It sat on the palate with a port-like richness and sweetness, and jammy fig, prune and raisin fruit filled the mouth. Spice character emerged through the midpalate along with almond extract and red licorice, though remarkably elegant structure held it all together. While this is not a wine for everyone, it was a real treat to taste.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that some whites (e.g., Riesling) can also develop subtle complexity with age. We recently enjoyed a 2002 Johannishof Riesling Kabinett “G” and a 2005 Loosen “Dr L.” Riesling, both of which were delicious and have years of life ahead of them.





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