My husband keeps telling me that he is aging like a fine wine. When I ask him what this means, he says: “I’m getting better with age.” Which naturally prompts me to ask: “Does wine really get better with age?” For clarification, I should say that I am not asking if a wine is better at 5 years or 10 years than the year it was released. What I’m really referring to is serious aging of wine: 30, 40, 50 years – and longer. Not all wines are “built to last” and you would be crazy not to open and finish them within a year or two of their vintage. But there is a subset of wine that is made to age and you can reasonably expect to be good for many years. The question is, how many?
We had the opportunity to test this out over the past couple of years because my husband decided he had to start drinking his birth year wine, which was legitimately a very long time ago! “1965 was a good vintage,” he likes to say. “It produced me.” For Christmas, his birthday, Father’s Day, Valentine’s day, Groundhog Day – any day that could be celebrated – he has asked not to receive any of the traditional “dad” gifts – robe, slippers, aftershave, grilling supplies. “I only want birth-year wine.”
After this proclamation, the very first gift-giving opportunity was Christmas and his birthday, which are just a few days apart. Two of the kids pooled their “Dad gift” budget together and bought a 1965 Spanish wine from John’s favorite Rioja winery.
Because the kids purchased the wine from a seller in Spain, we knew not to expect Amazon-fast delivery. Before even leaving Spain, the wine would have to clear customs there, and then once again on arrival into the U.S. Nevertheless, after about 3 days John started asking “where’s the wine?” For days on end he was like a little kid waiting for his model airplane kit or x-ray sunglasses to arrive. Whenever the doorbell rang he sprinted to the door yelling “it’s for me!” And each time the UPS driver dropped off a box of dog food, paper towels or some other staple. Ironically, on a day John was out shopping the wine came and he missed the delivery.
As soon as he saw the package, John opened it and placed it in the wine fridge and declared that the wine would need to recover for a bit before being opened on his birthday, New Year’s Eve. “International voyages are rough on wine” he informed us. “Jet lag?” one of the more acerbic kids asked in sotto voce. Finally the big day arrived and John rescued the bottle from the wine fridge and gently cradled it in a towel like you might do with a baby kitten found in the park. He took it to the dining room and began the elaborate process of removing the cork. Surprisingly, it came out in one piece.
John delicately poured the wine into a decanter – not so much to decant it but to separate the wine from the decades of sediment. Then, with the ceremony of a wine steward at a state dinner, he poured a bit in everyone’s glass. Of course, in his own he put what he calls a “big boy” pour. Visually, the wine color was off: more of a brick color than the red / ruby color that you might expect from a wine in current release. That is to be expected as older wine tends to experience “oxidation” – the effect of oxygen exposure to the wine. Now on to the aroma . . The wine smelled weird. There, I said it. Funky. And not good funk. “It smells like feet,” one of the kids said. And it did. On the palate? I took a micro-sip and would have spit it out if we didn’t have company. I’m not a professional taster and I’m sure there are more accurate “wine terms” that could be applied. I stuck with “feet” and added “rusty pennies” and “battery acid.”
John took his tasting notes more seriously. He kept trying to find a legitimate word to describe the flavor he was getting. “Sort of like iron,” he said. “Ferrous? Is that the right word?” With some more swirling and swilling, he deepened our insights: “It kind of tastes like blood when you bit the inside of your mouth; you know how iron has sort of an iron tinge to it?” Once again a kid weighed in: “Bloody feet. This wine tastes and smells like bloody feet.” To a person, everyone poured their unconsumed wine back into the decanter. Except John of course. Over the course of dinner, he slowly but steadily sipped the wine until the entire bottle was gone. Every few minutes he would throw out some perceived value in the wine: “You know, I think it’s opening up a bit.’ “The fruit is starting to show itself.” We all nodded and murmured supportively.
On the next opportunity for birth-year wine – Father’s Day – John mercifully did not ask for the same wine as New Year’s. He said he was open to something new. Go figure. Collectively the kids and I decided to jump countries and look for something in Italy and we found a 1965 Barbera (one of John’s favorite grape varieties).
We happened to be out at a restaurant this particular Father’s Day (pre-Covid!) and left it to the somm to open the wine, which he did expertly. Once poured, the wine had a dull appearance and a somewhat brackish-brown color. Once again, oxidized. Not a great aroma and, to me, undrinkable. Not bloody feet, mind you; just not worth wasting my mouth’s time on it. Again, John nursed the entire bottle over the meal and did all sorts of gymnastics to find some good things to say about the wine. In the end, he did admit to being a bit disappointed with his first two birth-year wines.
A less stubborn person would have given up at this point and gone back to drinking wine from more current vintages. Not John. In fact, he doubled down on the aged wine tasting and started moving the wrong direction – to wines even older than his birth year. John read an article about a famous Ukrainian winery and decided that he had to find a really old bottle of their wine. Somewhere in the U.K. he tracked down a 1959 bottle of sweet Muscat from Massandra Winery.
Once again John took out his surgical kit and went to work on the cork. It was a difficult extraction but, all in all, the patient did not suffer too greatly and the organ was removed.
Old wines have been exposed to oxygen so generally you do not want to decant them for any amount of time as that simply introduces more oxygen contact. Decanting does come in handy, though, as noted above, to remove sediment. There is an art to pouring old wines slowly, with the wine bottle parallel to the counter, to allow the wine to come out slowly while the sediment remains in the bottle. This is an art John has not mastered. Like a bull in a china shop, he upended the bottle and the sediment-sludge went into the decanter. The resulting copper brown liquid looked anything but appealing.
John leapt into action to “save” the wine. First he poured it back and forth between two carafes through layers of cheesecloth to catch some of the sediment. Finally, he poured the wine through a coffee filter to extract whatever remaining sediment he could. This is the result.
How was the wine? It didn’t suck. That’s the best I can do. This wine has a high sugar content and there was still sweetness in the wine and you could imagine what this 1959 might have tasted like in, oh I don’t know, 1962? But it was still old, tasted old, and should have ended the experimentation with vintage wine. It did not.
The month after Father’s Day marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of John’s mother Inés. When he said he wanted to get a special bottle to mark this occasion I could not say no – even when it turned out to be his mother’s birth-year wine. What year, you ask? 1934. What winery, you ask? The same one that gave us the famous “bloody feet” 1965. As a good wife, though, I went along.
This wine was also consumed at a restaurant – a terrific Spanish joint in Berkeley serving authentic cuisine of Spain. Bloody feet? Not this time. Drinkable wine? Still no, at least for me. And yes, John did finish the entire bottle. Again.
By now, faithful reader, you’re thinking “okay, lesson learned.” That’s what I thought. Until I noticed John late that year waiting for the UPS driver every day. “What did you do?” I asked. “Nothing,” he replied, the way a toddler who broke a vase might have. “I swear if any wine comes here with a vintage starting with an `18′ I’m going to lose it!” “I couldn’t find anything that old,” he informed me.
When the wine did arrive, it was even older than his mother’s birth-year – this time, a 1928!!! Specifically, a 1928 Federico Paternina Gran Reserva from Spain’s Rioja region.
You can write the rest of the story by now. I took a sip, didn’t like it, John finished the bottle and found some positive things to say about how the wine held up.
Finally I put my foot down. No more old wines. As you might imagine, these vintage wines that have to be flown in from Europe and clear multiple customs hurdles are not cheap. “What do you consider old,” he asked. “Anything with a vintage that doesn’t start with `20′,” I told him. “Oh come on, that’s too recent.” So I gave in and said nothing older than 1990, but to cool it for a while. The very next week, he bought this:
Finally, I had enough. I really put my foot down and John is in perpetual time-out status when it comes to older wines. When will this change? Probably when I taste something really old and find it to be worth drinking. Then I will start choosing the older wines!
Cheers everyone, drop a note in comments and let me know the oldest wine you had and share some tasting notes.
Oh, and if you want to find some current release wines from unique wine regions, check out my web wine store at http://www.topochines.com
February 26, 2021