Years ago, on a trip to Bordeaux to taste samples from a new vintage, I had the opportunity to have dinner at Domaine de Chevalier. The host, Domaine de Chevalier owner Olivier Bernard, used the occasion to raid the Chevalier cellar for a couple of seriously old bottles of wine.
If memory serves, the vintage was 1927, or thereabouts. There were two wines. Both had been decanted and presented at table. One was red; the other white. Remarkably, both were the same color.
Bernard explained that red wines get lighter as they age, and white wines get darker. To my surprise, both wines were quite drinkable although well past their prime.
If you drink enough wine over enough time, you will no doubt eventually encounter an old wine that rocks you, hence the quaint bromide that wine improves with age. Some wines do. Many don’t.
The beauty of an older wine that was made to evolve slowly is found in the complexity of the bouquet and the taste and the texture on the palate. A fine Bordeaux or Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon served at peak maturity can be a transformative experience, consigning you to a lifetime pursuit of that next truly great bottle of wine.
Or you can do it the easy way, buying a few bottles of young but cellar-worthy wine and tucking them away for 10 years or more. The trick is knowing what to look for.
Classified growths of Bordeaux are a good place to start, even at the lower end of the price spectrum. California cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles to Napa and Sonoma also have the potential to improve with age. Don’t bother with cheap bulk-production wines; even though they may taste just fine now, they won’t have the guts (structure) to age gracefully.
From Italy, take a look at the three B’s: Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello. Most are better at the age of 10 than the age of 5.
Burgundy—red and white—is another candidate to improve with additional time in the cellar. But stick to premier cru and grand cru wines, or you will likely be disappointed.
Spain also produces age-worthy wines, notably the reds of Rioja. For my money, Rioja offers the greatest aging potential for the least financial investment. Many Rioja reservas priced in the $20 range will age beautifully for 15 years or more.
And finally, there are German and Australian rieslings that don’t hit their best stride until approaching 20 years old.
There are other wines with excellent aging potential, including many syrah-based wines from France’s Rhone Valley. But the aforementioned are the easiest to find and the most reliable.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer’s enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Hawk and Horse 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills ($75): Hawk and Horse is an underrated winery that should get more attention. Its fruit sources are impeccable, and its style is bold, ripe, and powerful. This muscular cabernet shows complex black-fruit layers with hints of wood smoke and spice, as well as firm tannins that will soften over the next 3 to 5 years. It’s a good candidate to cellar, though it’s plenty enjoyable to drink now. Rating: 96.
Oakville Ranch 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville ($90): Oakville Ranch has an excellent track record with cabernet sauvignon. This vintage is right in the winery’s wheelhouse. It delivers complex layers of red and black fruits with a generous dose of new oak, which the fruit handles with poise. This wine is rich and spicy with impressive depth and length. Rating: 96.
Acorn Winery 2014 Dolcetto, Alegria Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($35): Dolcetto is often called the Beaujolais of Italian wine because it tends to be lighter in color and less likely to hammer the palate with astringent tannins. This Dolcetto from California’s Russian River Valley is in the mold of top-notch Dolcetto from Italy’s Piedmont district. It shows a floral nose followed by red berry fruit on the palate and a modest bite on the finish. It’s a beautiful red for picnics, Mediterranean appetizers, or charcuterie. Rating: 95.
Handley Cellars 2015 Gewurztraminer, Estate, Anderson Valley ($22): Milla Handley’s 2015 dry gewurztraminer invites you in with an alluring and seductive hint of jasmine on the nose. On the palate, this wine offers honeysuckle and lychee aromas, spice, and impressive length. It’s another beautiful gewurz from the underrated Handley winery, and another triumph for the Anderson Valley in the arena of aromatic Alsatian white wines. Rating: 95.
J. Lohr 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Hilltop,’ Paso Robles ($35): J. Lohr’s 2014 Hilltop Cabernet is of the sort that made Paso Robles cab famous. It’s ripe and juicy, and spicy and racy, and priced modestly. With loads of blackberry and blueberry fruit and supple tannins, it’s a crowd-pleaser that is primed for stardom during the upcoming grilling season. Rating: 95.
Nguilleu 2016 Chardonnay Reserva, Valle Central, Chile ($25): Moderately expensive for a Chilean chardonnay, this wine delivers a lovely pear note with a hint of citrus and wood spice. Rating: 92.
Oak Farm Vineyards 2015 Zinfandel, Lodi ($24): Zinfandel lovers, beware: This one is right in your wheelhouse, with aromas of smoked meats and jammy black fruits. Rating: 92.
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