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WINE NOTES: MARCH 2011

DRINK IT NOW OR LET IT REST?
THREE EXPERTS WEIGH IN


By KATHERINE COLE

 

When you were touring wine country with your in-laws, you bought a half-case of the "Reserve" at your favorite winery. Should you drink it or hold onto it? Or: You don't have the time or the funds to devote to a serious cellar but still would like to put a few special bottles away. Which ones? And how long should you wait to open them? And what if one of those bottles you squirreled away for future enjoyment turns out to be a disappointment?

These sorts of questions can drive casual wine lovers crazy. Which is why I've put them to three local experts. Bob Scherb is the owner of Liner & Elsen, the Northwest Portland fine-wine shop. David Speer, owner of Red Slate Wine Co., is a personal sommelier who advises wine aficionados on building their collections. And John D'Anna, who has been a sommelier, distributor and importer of wines, now works as director of marketing and Sales for Cristom Vineyards, a Willamette Valley producer known for its age-worthy pinot noirs.

As D'Anna points out, "95 percent of people who buy wine lay it on the back seat of their car and open it as soon as they get home." Want to join the ranks of that other 5 percent? Read on to see some of your most burning wine-aging questions addressed:

Am I equipped to store wine?

    Bob Scherb: What are the conditions of your cellar? Do you have a cellar? Wine wants three things. It wants to be quiet, it wants to be dark and it wants to be cool. If you don't have the ideal conditions, what are the conditions? Anything that is not necessarily ideal is going to subtract from the time you can age the wine for.

Does price correlate with age-ability?

    Scherb: I think there is a relationship, but it is not an absolute one. There are Bordeaux in the $10-to-$15 range that will age beautifully. If they start off as balanced wines, they will continue as balanced wines. As long as the alcohol and sugars are not pumped up, they should be capable of some aging. So price doesn't necessarily guarantee anything. You just need to understand what makes a wine agreeable: The tannic structure, the acidity (in a white wine, a great deal of acidity) and the generosity of fruit.

Will I even like the way this wine tastes in 20 years?

    Scherb: Many people have been told that aged wines are better, and then they taste a 20-year-old wine and they ask, "Where is the fruit?" People need to understand that the aging process really changes the wine. Often a German or Alsatian riesling can be awfully good right out of the chute -- people just love the freshness, that great lively electricity in the mouth. Yet the potential is there for those wines to age 30 to 40 years. If you open that riesling in 15 years, you are going to get notes of minerality and earth in place of that freshness, and you might be disappointed. So we try to understand what customers are expecting out of their investment.

What are "library releases"?

    David Speer: A winery or importer will hold older vintages at the winery or warehouse. When they sell these older vintages, they're generally ready to drink or will be ready soon. This is great because you know that the storage has been appropriate and the wine hasn't been bouncing around through auction houses and people's houses.

What regions and varietals are, in general, best for holding and which ones are best drunk right away?

    Scherb: More and more wines are being made for immediate consumption; we wouldn't recommend these wines for aging. They can either go downhill or not do very much in the bottle. They include a lot of California cabs, many Argentinean wines, many Australian shirazes. We recommend holding nebbiolo-based Italian wines, cabernet francs, malbecs from the south of France, and, of course, Burgundy and Bordeaux, for the long haul.
    
    Speer: Wines in from the northern Rhône also really benefit from some time, as does vintage port. Here in the States, most winemakers are making their wines to be drunk a bit younger, but many Walla Walla syrahs and other reds from Washington need five years or so.

Oregon pinot noir: Drink now or hold?

    John D'Anna: Wait a little bit to drink your favorites. 2008 was a great vintage, but the 2008 wines are still more like watching a movie on your phone rather than on a Sony XBR widescreen projection TV. The '07s are just now getting much more wonderful to drink. I encourage people to save even entry-level pinots at least six months to a year. At Cristom, we release our wines later; we hold them in bottle at the winery. So we are selling our 2007s now and just starting to release our '08s. These wines have benefited from the additional time in bottle. They are a little more giving.

I'm pretty sure I shouldn't open this $50 pinot noir right away, but I am not interested in starting a cellar. Any advice?

    D'Anna: You can gain a lot by putting a wine away for just a year or two. That $50 Oregon pinot will have a lot more to offer up; it will soften up a lot more. There are things that chemically change over the course of just a year. More will be revealed: The wine will actually form a bouquet, not just aromas. So you don't have to wait until 2020 to open it. That in-between time can be a lot of fun.

I've tried looking at vintage charts and critics' recommendations regarding what to hold and what to open, and they're pretty confusing. They seem to contradict each other. Should I just call the winery and ask them when to drink this wine?

    D'Anna: We get asked all the time. We've resisted putting our own tasting chart on our website because we try to avoid being arbiters of taste. We often suggest that the 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004 vintages are good right now. We try to recommend vintages that might be approachable, without trying to codify it and say, "Drink this now!" To be honest, when critics advise "drink" or "hold," that's something of a craps shoot.

Can you name some Oregon pinot noir producers that are known to be age-worthy?

    Scherb: The Eyrie Vineyards is always No. 1 for long-term aging, regardless of varietal. Domaine Drouhin Oregon, St. Innocent, Cameron and Evesham Wood, as well. And I recently opened an old McKinlay that was beautiful.

Cristom is also often mentioned as a wine that tastes better with some age on it. For the geeks among us, could you tell us what is unique about the winemaking process there?

    D'Anna: The addition of a large percentage of whole clusters creates an additional layer of muscle -- tannic structure and acidity -- in the wines. Our wines have low pH and lots of structure. And they get 18 months to two years of wood, with a lot of new oak. These are signs that the winemaker's intention is to make wines that are age-worthy. There are some telltale signs of a wine like this: more texture to the mouth feel, and more spiciness versus that big bowl of black-cherry fruitiness.

I know what I like. How can I come to my own decisions as to when to open wines?

    Speer: Go to a reputable wine shop or online dealer and buy a few older-vintage wines, or go somewhere like Metrovino, where often they'll have something a decade or older that you can taste. This way you are not investing a lot of money and time in something you ultimately may not like. Try a variety -- wines that are 5, 10, 15 and 20 years old. You might find you lean toward the wines that are, say, 5 or 10 years old. Then you can use this as a benchmark. Or, buy between three bottles and a case (of 12) of a wine you like and open a bottle after a couple of years. Do you like it at two years or is it still abrasive? If it's not drinking well, revisit it in five years, then drink the third in 10 years. You'll get to see the progression, which is half the fun in wine. It's not that it's going to be perfect in 10 years; wine is a conversation. It's fun to see that evolution and discover what you prefer.

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