CAPTURING wine at its peak of perfection -- neither too youthfully astringent nor teetering on the brink of senility--is the great passion of wine collectors. The desire to drink a wine at the height of its maturity, when its tannic mask has been removed and its rich, complex flavors and bouquet emerge, provokes thousands of aficionados to spend small fortunes squirreling away young bottles of fine French bordeaux and burgundy, Italian barolos, barbarescos and chiantis and Portuguese ports
Actually, the amount of European red wine that requires any type of cellaring is minuscule. The overwhelming majority of wine produced, both red and white, is meant for immediate consumption, and if not consumed within a year or two after its bottling is likely to have lost much of its freshness and fruitiness. The good, red European wines, to be sure, benefit from extended cellaring--but the point at which they become fully mature is debatable.
A number of the majestic reds that collectors have stocked away should be given drinking consideration in 1983, before they have passed their prime.
While not all the red wines of Bordeaux some of the wines from such famous areas as Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, St. Este phe, Graves, St. Emilion and Pomerol age beautifully. But if you have bordeaux in your wine cellar from such recent vintages as 1971, 1973, 1974, and 1976, you should start drinking it.
The 1976s, never very concentrated, are quite elegant and round now and, except for a privileged few, are not likely to get any better during the next few years. Likewise, the 1971s are marvelous. Few if any bordeaux from this vintage will take additional cellaring. While the vintage is neither as concentrated nor as successful as the 1970 harvest, the wines in 1983 are showing better than their older, more renowned 1970 siblings.
Most of the 1974s are not likely to get any better, and far too many of these wines have an annoying harshness in the finish. This vintage also can provide quite a few surprises, but unless you know the wine intimately, most 1974s should be drunk in 1983. On the critical drinking list are the feeble 1973 bordeaux. Overall, these wines were diluted, light and weak when they were released in 1976, and most of them should have been drunk several years ago. It is not impossible to find a 1973 that still is holding together, but such a wine is clearly an exception to the vintage.
One of the great advantages bordeaux has over other wines is that the "peak period" (the amount of time over which the wine is considered to be mature and drinkable) is so long. The wines from such classic vintages as 1966, 1970, 1975 and 1978 still require plenty of time before they can be drunk with a great deal of pleasure. In the case of 1970 or 1975 vintages, this time span can be expected to be five, 10 or even 20 years. With less concentrated and tannic vintages, it can be as short as three to five years. Nevertheless, even with a short peak period, bordeaux wine tends to hold together much longer than other great red wines from France as well as other countries.
In contrast, many modern-day burgundies tend to mature within three to five years after a vintage, and only hold a short time, sometimes falling apart in six to 12 months.
In 1983, I would be drinking any burgundy made in the 1970s except for the still youthful 1976s and 1978s. Neither vintage is close to maturity, but these are the best red burgundies since 1972. In addition, the charming 1979s are already fully mature; the mediocre 1977s, 1975s and 1974s are best drunk now, if ever. Finally, well stored bottles of 1972s, 1971s and 1970s are pure perfection now, but are unlikely to get any better. Any older vintages of burgundy are best approached with caution unless they are out of a large bottle, such as a magnum; are from the 1969 vintage, the last great burgundy vintage to require lengthy cellaring; or have been kept in very cold cellars, which slows maturation.
Other than red burgundy and red bordeaux, the only other major red wines produced in France that need--even require--cellaring come from the Rho ne Valley. While some of these wines are meant to be consumed upon release, the tannic, concentrated, enormous wines will develop only after a minimum of five to 10 years of cellaring. In 1983, I doubt whether there are many wine enthusiasts who have maintained old stocks of red rho nes simply because they were not discovered as great wines by the majority of the consumers until the last several years. But for those fortunate to have some, the 1967s, 1969s, 1970s, 1971s and 1976s offer marvelous drinking this year.
Unlike burgundy, and more akin to bordeaux in the manner in which they evolve in the bottle, the top Rho ne wines from these vintages will keep for four to five more years. With respect to other Rho ne vintages, the 1972s still need time, and the glorious 1978s are best ignored for at least five or more years--as are the 1979s. The 1980 rho nes tend to be fat and fruity, and most of them, surprisingly, can be drunk now, although several years of cellaring will enhance the bouquets significantly.
Old vintages of wine from Italy's great red wine regions, Tuscany and Piedmont, are quite rare. Chiantis from Tuscany mature quite rapidly these days, and few estates make a wine that will blossom and improve beyond six or so years after the vintage. This is not true of Tuscany's other great wine, the expensive Brunello di Montalcino, which demands a good eight to 15 years of cellaring in most vintages.
In 1983, I will be drinking my chiantis from all vintages since 1975, unless the wine was made from one of the top fattorias, such as Monsanto or Badia a Colitubuono, both of which still produce chiantis for extended cellaring. Even the newly released 1977, 1978 and 1979 chiantis are quite drinkable now, and seem to offer little chance of improving in the bottle past the mid-'80s. This rule hardly can be applied to tannic, woody, giant Brunello di Montalcino. We have to go back to 1973 and 1964 to find a vintage of this wine that is relatively mature. Recent good vintages, such as the 1971, 1974 and the 1975, will all require at least 10 more years of cellaring, even allowing for the different styles of wine made by the various producers.
Piedmont's big red wines, principally barolo and barbaresco, also can test the patience of most cellarmasters. Despite increasing concessions to the modern style of winemaking, where suppleness and fruitiness in wine are preferred over tannin and enormity, most barolos and barbarescos still seem to warrant a minimum of 10 years of cellaring, even in lighter-weight vintages such as 1970 and 1974. The great vintages--1971, 1978 and 1979--will not be drinkable for 10 or 15 years, perhaps even needing as long as 20 years. If you have older barolos and barbarescos in your cellar, you can start drinking the 1964s, 1967s and the 1970s--but don't touch the more recent vintages, unless you adore the taste of tannin.
The Iberian peninsula produces some of the world's greatest red wine, values ranging from dry red table wines to the fortified red wines called port. The best Spanish red wines come from either Rioja or Penedes. Most of these wines, usually aged in wood casks until they are relatively drinkable, normally are released only when they are mature. Two notable exceptions include the Torres, Black Label, Gran Coronas and Jean Leon cabernet sauvignons, which behave more like young bordeaux. Both wines are kept in casks for a shorter period, as the producers are more interested in promoting the development of the wine in the bottle than in long storage in huge oak casks. For drinking in 1983, just about any Rioja or Penedes wine, other than the two previously mentioned, will be relatively mature and drinkable.
Port, for the most part, is drinkable upon release. The exception is vintage port, which can obviously be drunk with a great deal of pleasure when young, but whose real complexity does not emerge until 10 or 20 years after the vintage. It can live for 50 to 100 years, and it is extremely rare to drink an over-the-hill port. If you are lucky enough to have any in your cellar, the 1945s, 1948s, 1955s, 1960s and the 1966s are sensational for drinking now, and will continue to drink well for another 20 years. The 1963s, 1970s, 1975s and 1977s are not quite ready, with the '77s needing a good 15 more years of cellaring.