Most of us have given up on the idea of cellaring wine. We might have a few bottles tucked away to last until our next visit to the wine store, but marketing surveys have shown that most wine purchased in the United States is consumed within days.
Winemakers have responded by crafting wines for early drinking, with lower tannins and a more fruit-forward style. Fancy wine cellars with their collections of first-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundy are caverns of the rich. The rest of us live for the moment.
Yet wines great and humble can age remarkably well. Sipping an aged wine, savoring the flavors of a long-ago season, gives us a connection to history and maybe a sense of optimism that we, too, can mature so gracefully. It explains much of wine’s mystique.
Even swirling, sniffing and spitting aged wine can be quite an experience, as I learned this summer when I was invited by Penfolds, Australia’s leading wine producer, to participate in a panel evaluating its icon wine, Grange. The tasting was for the upcoming seventh edition of “The Rewards of Patience,” a book Penfolds uses in evaluating how various vintages of its red wines are aging. Chief winemaker Peter Gago, along with senior red winemaker Steve Lienert and Andrew Caillard, master of wine and the book’s author, assembled several wine writers from North and South America to taste and evaluate every vintage of Grange from the inaugural 1952 through the yet-to-be-released 2010.
Yes, that’s 59 vintages in one day of a wine that sells for about $500 a bottle upon release. It’s an interesting way to get a sense of a wine, how the styles have changed slightly over the years under different winemakers and how well the wine ages. And, yes, there’s history. One of the earlier vintages, I won’t say which, had me writing, “This would have been harvested about the time I was conceived.”
If you’re lucky enough to have some Grange among your holdings, here’s my rough assessment of how they might be faring. From 1952 through 1974, the wines show their age, with tawny, brick-red color and dried fruit and mushroomy flavors. Beginning with 1975 through 1990, the wines are vibrant and drinking beautifully now, though they still have many years to go; think of this as middle age. Through the ’90s, they are delicious but still with a sense that you’re missing out by not waiting another decade or more. (Think of Bryce Harper — a ’92 vintage — and his potential.) Anything younger than these, don’t even think about drinking them just yet.
As awe-inspiring as that tasting was, the next day’s exercise was more surprising and practical for consumers. We repeated with the Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet blend from the inaugural 1976 vintage. The Koonunga Hill is widely available and retails for about $12. The track record with this wine was more uneven than that of the Grange, mostly because the winemaking changed more dramatically as the Koonunga Hill became popular and additional vineyards across Australia provided fruit for the wine. And, of course, there was vintage variation.
I would gladly welcome to my dinner table any of the Koonunga Hill wines from 2003 to the present. Under Gago, who took chief winemaker duties in 2002, these wines are consistently delicious. But they are (not yet) the best “KH” reds. Those would be the gorgeous ’97 and the elegant period of ’90 through ’92.
As Gago said, “The missing ingredient is time.”
Is Koonunga Hill as good or age-worthy as Grange? Of course not. But they share that lively, spicy character of Australian red wine, along with one other important trait: They are refreshing. Each sip left me primed for another, or for a bite of food. Neither tried too hard to impress with excessive oak or plodding sweetness. Wine lovers without unlimited budgets or expansive tasting rooms can start their “cellars” — even if that means a closet or a space under the stairs — with an inexpensive wine capable of rewarding their patience over decades.