Columnist, Food


Tasting several vintages of a wine gives an impression of a winery's character and style over time. (Panos Kakaviatos)

Some wine lovers revel in older vintages of rare, expensive wines. They line up the bottles from each bacchanal like trophies and post photos on Instagram, Facebook and wine collector apps such as Delectable and Vivino. There’s typically a self-congratulatory note to these posts. Wine lovers do like to share, but we enjoy bragging, too.

Such events can be fascinating. At a recent dinner at Ripple restaurant in Cleveland Park organized by wine writer Panos Kakaviatos, I was able to taste 16 vintages of Château Montrose dating to 1970. Montrose is in Saint-Estèphe, the northernmost appellation on Bordeaux’s left bank, within spitting distance of the Gironde River. I visited two years ago, when Montrose hosted the Fête de la Fleur, a black-tie gala during the biennial Vinexpo trade fair. The Ripple dinner was more intimate, and it gave me and about 40 other oenophiliacs a chance to experience Montrose’s unique expression over time while also getting to know the winery’s chief executive, Hervé Berland.

The wines were postcards from time. We enjoyed second-guessing the winemaker’s decision to harvest early in 1986, yielding a green-tasting, under-ripe wine, while praising the same decision in the warmer, riper year of 1976, when picking later might have been disastrous. I was pleased to record in my Moleskine that the wine harvested a few months after my wedding is drinking beautifully after more than three decades. And the vintage of my teenage daughter’s birth is, like her, maturing into a beautiful and promising adulthood. As Kakaviatos said: “It’s just entering its drinking window. Five years ago it was tough as nails.” (And five years ago I would have told you what vintages those were. But in this day and age of protecting one’s personally identifiable information, I’ll leave you guessing.)

There’s much to be said for opening one fine vintage and enjoying it over the course of an evening, rather than glugging a taste and rushing on to the next one, but I recommend a “vertical” tasting like this for its educational value for collectors and wine students alike. As one of my fellow diners, who has several vintages of Montrose in his cellar, remarked, “I enjoy each wine less this way, but I learn more.”

A vertical tasting is time travel, but wine can take us to faraway places as well. Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia have appeared frequently in my recommendations over the past several months. These are not new wine regions by any stretch, but they have improved dramatically in modern winemaking. Many of the wines I’ve tasted follow a similar model: They feature indigenous (and often unpronounceable) grape varieties blended with international varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon or syrah. This combines authenticity and novelty with familiarity. Hiring a famous international wine consultant such as Michel Rolland or Paul Hobbs doesn’t hurt, either.

My corkscrew travels have recently taken me back to Australia, which pretty much disappeared — aside from the ubiquitous Yellow Tail brand — from U.S. retail shelves after a torrid love affair in the 1990s. And we’re missing a lot by ignoring Australia. Many Aussie winemakers are steering away from the ultra-ripe, jammy, high-alcohol shiraz reds that once defined Australian wine. They are following the model of the great syrahs of the northern Rhone Valley in France rather than a “bigger is better” philosophy. The best, like the elegant and delicious Shaw + Smith 2014 Shiraz from the Adelaide Hills region, retain some of the spicy raspberry character that says Australia without the excess that made the old style tiresome. These wines are often riveting.

And of course, Australia offers much more than shiraz. Pinot noir and chardonnay can also be exceptional, and winemakers are developing a distinct style with those grapes, a style on the lighter side, with bright acidity and never too much oak.

“In the early days, we were making pinot for shiraz drinkers,” says Michael Hill Smith, a master of wine who founded Shaw + Smith winery in 1989 with his cousin, Martin Shaw. “Today, we are not afraid of wines that are lighter in color and body and more aromatic.”

Smith was speaking at last summer’s International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, where he also presented the astounding pinot noir from Tolpuddle Vineyard in Tasmania. He and Shaw bought the vineyard in 2011, just as Tasmania was beginning to build a reputation for exceptional pinot noir and chardonnay. Fans of the “West Sonoma Coast” area in California should seek out the wines of Tasmania. They are hard to find, and not cheap. But they are less expensive than a plane ticket.