No Fun Getting Old: Age and Wine

“How you doing, Grandpa?”

“Well, it’s no fun getting old,” wheezed my great-grandfather Wes. Then, a deep breath. It was meant as a direct response to a rote question. It frequently left me grinning uncomfortably.

For many, aged wine contains an aura of near mythical power. Hold a 30 year old wine in your hands, and you hold history, even time itself. We are taught that aged wines bring new depths to explore, and we hear a similar message about elderhood. I have certainly felt this rapture when holding aged bottles of wine.

Too often, however, the rapture doesn’t extend to the tasting experience.

In truth, most wines (and humans) don’t age gracefully. While recently drinking a bottle of 1998 Brunello, I (again) held a wine in my hands that undoubtedly tasted better 10 years earlier. I’m not talking about $10 grocery store wine, which surely should be drunk young. Most well-crafted wines made with great care do not benefit from 20+ years of cellar aging. More of us, collectors included, would do well to drink our wines with 5-12 years of age on them. In this window, we run little risk of pulling a cork on a worn out bottle, and the resulting experience will provide a surer pleasure for a broader audience. Between a wines youthful release and tired, raisened age rests an ideal window when a wine holds both fresh fruit, and complexing, intriguing layers that only time can add.

I can already hear the scoffers. “Is this clown really telling me I can’t age my First Growth Bordeaux for 30 years and find glorious fruit and captivating aged aromas and flavors?”

Of course not. For most, however, wines of this ilk are out of reach. And to those scoffers, I bet them their cellars that I will enjoy fewer tired, no-fun-getting-old wines, and many more in their prime of life. And when I win their cellars, I’ll start pulling the corks.

The mystique of aged wines leads collectors to buy futures from many fine Chateaus and Domaines, but a disturbing number of these stunning wines rest for decades holding nothing but the promise of vinegar 30 to 40 years in the future. We’ve sanctified the status of aged wine to the point that many dare not touch their pearl-white treasure.

Perhaps as I age, I will find new meaning in the brittle aromas and flavors of dried fruit and leather. In the meantime, I will enjoy my wines while I know they will please.

2014 Clearwater Canyon Coco’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

92 points

Deep ruby with purple hues, the nose provides intense black currant, blackberry liqueur, leather, and smoked jerky aromatics with black olive whispering in the background. An abundance of smooth, ripe tannins ride on the ripe, deep flavors, which echo the nose. Nice persistence and well-layered. A noteworthy effort from a respected producer in the brave new world of Idaho winemaking. Drink 2018—2026. (MW, June 2017)

Price $42

Varietals: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Syrah, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, 3% Merlot

Region: Lewis-Clark Valley AVA

Alcohol: 14.7%

Producer: Clearwater Canyon Cellars

2013 Walla Walla Vintners Merlot

91 points

Deep ruby with spiced plum, fresh blackberry, graphite, and slate spilling compellingly from the glass. Ripe fruit joins the poised palate deftly balancing depth and buoyancy. The mid-palate gives way to clear, structured tannins and well-integrated acidity. Developing nicely with additional aging potential. Drink now through 2023+. (MW, May 2017)

Price $30

Varietal: Merlot

Region: Walla Walla Valley AVA

Alcohol: 14.2%

Producer: Walla Walla Vintners

Beaujolais All Day

I recently had the fortune to sit down with Aurélien Fiatdet of Terroirs Originels and Tom Monroe of Division Winemaking Company for an exploration of cru Beaujolais. Held at the SE Wine Collective, Aurélien led an intimate group through a 15 minute overview of the region before pouring seven distinct Crus ranging from the 2016 vintage to 1995.

For decades Beaujolais was cast aside as a land of cheap, monodimensional Beaujolais Nouveau. This “one trick pony” had much more to offer, however. Inspiring grower producers existed through the years, but wallowed in the shadows. No hyperbole. Top level Crus sold for $9-$12 in the American market, leaving no margin for these small production winemakers. Thanks to the persistent efforts of a handful of independent producers (Gang of 4), the rise of prices in Burgundy/Bordeaux/Rhone, and the megaphone of somms, cru Beaujolais has gained traction.

Rightfully so! These wines hail from high elevation vineyards ranging between 800-1700 feet with ideal granite and volcanic soils. The wines tasted at this event come from a group of producers that farm their estate vineyards with serious care, and the wines receive small lot treatment—hand harvesting from bush vines, semi-carbonic maceration with a large portion of whole clusters, and aging in large neutral oak foudre or concrete vats. The resulting wines sing the praises of the varietal, Gamay, and the unparalleled terroir for this grape.

Tom Monroe, co-leader of the tasting, champions Gamay himself, making more Gamay bottlings each vintage than any other Oregon producer. Other revered winegrowers, including  Brick House, Chehalem, Bow & Arrow, have also dabbled, some for decades. With the cool-climate of the Willamette Valley well-respected for the other Burgundian varietals, it makes sense that the region would test the vinous waters of Gamay. And they have found success. Festivals like I Love Gamay and national press evidence the varietals growing reputation in Oregon.

However, Tom and most other Oregon producers still genuflect east in the morning as they tend their Gamay vines, or punch down the cap of fermenting Gamay must. Beaujolais reigns supreme. The wines swirled and tasted last week provide the evidence.

Notes from the two standouts with a list of the other wines tasted:

2016 Pascal Aufranc Vignes de 1939 Chénas ($17): Bold aromatics of ripe raspberry, white pepper, and granite fold lusciously into the mesmerizing palate, which provides pleasing yin-yang tension and structure, all boding well for the present and at least a decade in the cellar. 25 acre vineyard. 92 points.

2013 Domaine Pascal Aufranc Lingum Julienas ($20): Medium purple with dry cherry, kirsch, and dried marjoram seducing the senses. Nice delineation through the palate with a pinch of pepper adding intrigue. 20% neutral oak. 92 points.

  • 2015 Robert Perroud L’enfer des Balloquets Brouilly ($17)
  • 2015 Lucien Lardy Les Thorins Moulin-à-Vent ($20)
  • 2015 Jean-Paul Thévenet Vieilles Vignes Morgon ($30)
  • 2005 Pascal Aufranc Vignes de 1939 Chénas
  • 1995 Robert Perroud Pollen Brouilly

2014 Wy’east Vineyards Vinette’s Cuvee Pinot Noir

Wy'east Vineyard 2014 Vinette's Cuvee Pinot Noir

89 points

Medium ruby with nice aromatic intensity. Violet pastille, candied cherry, energetic raspberry, and a pinch of oak spice make a compelling statement. The body shows Oregon meeting German Spätburgunder, lithe with vivacious acidity and a low-level of grippy tannins. Tart cherry takes the command here. True to its source, even in warm vintages. (MW, May 2017)

Price $37

Varietal: Pinot Noir

Region: Columbia Gorge AVA

Alcohol: 13.6%

Producer: Wy’east Vineyards

2015 Cinder Viognier

Cinder 2015 Viognier

91 points

Medium gold with pointed aromas of ripe pineapple, watermelon rind, perfumed lilac, and nectarine. Medium-plus in body with moderate acidity, the palate brings honeycomb, lanolin, and more pineapple, all weaving into a compelling experience. Expressive and varietally spot on. (MW, April 2017)

Price $18

Varietal: Viognier

Region: 60% Washington, 40% Idaho

Alcohol: 13.8%

Producer: Cinder

Repackaged, Repriced: Trickster Branding in the 21st Century

In the February edition of Wine Business Monthly, Kevin O’Brien penned a noteworthy article filled with curious nooks and crannies.

Good news! Wine sales continue to grow, especially in the $10-$25 category. Sales of $6-$10 wines have meanwhile declined. This has resulted in the “premiumization” of the wine business. Even better, wine drinkers are lusting for honest wines. “. . . consumers are continuing to demand premium products across all beverage alcohol categories as they seek an authentic, high-quality experience.”

Of course, corporate wineries want in on this action, but only have a few options (beer drinkers, this should sound familiar):

  1. Increase price of existing wines
  2. Create new labels and reprice
  3. Buy premium brands*

As a consumer, beware of number two and a flip side of three. Thankfully you aren’t being duped by numero uno.

In the face of falling cheap wine sales, corporate wineries with substantial vineyard holdings have the need to put that fruit to better use. Quick, put the marketing department to work! Slap a new, shnazzy label on the identical bottle of vino (or nearly identical), get the PR machine buzzing, and out of the corporate sphincter comes a glimmering new bottle for the new and improved price of $15 (formerly $8).

Beware.

Massive producers have also used a related though sneakier tactic. “It should be noted that these large transactions, as well as several other completed during the year, were primarily focused on the brand rather than underlying vineyard or production facilities. A leading driver behind ‘asset light’ transactions is the flexibility in grape sourcing and resulting scalability of the brand.”

Decode: Corporate wineries gobble up a sexy, premium brand name, leave the vineyards and production facilities behind, and then put their less costly, already held vineyards to work under the newly acquired brand label.

Clever, clever, and harder to detect. The answer, the same tried and true answer, can be found in the following:

“The recent wave of wine industry transactions has been notable for its size and breadth. These acquisitions have been driven by suppliers’ desire not only to improve profitability through increased scale but also to remain relevant to their wholesaler and retailer partners. The past few years have seen several significant mergers between some of the country’s largest wholesalers and retailers. As the distribution funnel continues to narrow, wineries are finding access to the market increasingly difficult. . . . In general, larger retailers prefer to work with larger wholesalers in order to better integrate and simplify their supply chain and forecast demand.”

Corporate wineries need one of the big three distributors to move their product into the large retailers. It’s that simple.

Gallo     Constellation Brands    The Wine Group    Bronco Wine Company

Breakthru Beverage     Southern Glazer’s     Republic National

Safeway     Total Wine     Costco     Whole Foods*

The answer, my friends, remains the same. Shop your locally owned wine retailer, get to know your steward, and you will bring home bottles with authenticity, character, and value. You will also support three authentic tiers rather than the behemoths above.

 

  • *Premium brands = wineries producing $20+ wines
  • *Whole Foods has historically worked hard to diversify shelf space with large and small wineries. However, results at any given store vary by state, and market pressures continue to push retailers of this size to consolidate and simplify i.e. work with fewer distributors and reduce options on the shelf.

Sources:

2014 Wy’east Vineyards Pinot Gris

2014 Wy'east Pinot Gris Estate Grown

87 points

Pale lemon with subtle, youthful aromas of green apple, Bartlett pear, and slate. Dry leaning in to off-dry with noteworthy, well-integrated acidity. Length lacked luster, perhaps due to age. (MW, February 2017)

Price $20

Varietal: Pinot Gris

Region: Columbia Gorge AVA

Alcohol: 13.1%

Producer: Wy’east Vineyards

2014 Cinder Tempranillo

2014 Cinder Tempranillo, Snake River Valley AVA, Idaho

89 points

Medium ruby with purple undertones. Toasty oak leads with deep aromas of spiced plum and cherry pie following neatly behind. A well tuned wine with tannins, acid, and body all providing punctual counterpoints. Tart cherry makes its way into the mid-palate, and the finish proves satisfying. Think cabin in the winter woods with log fire cracklin’. (MW, February 2017)

Price $29

Varietal: Tempranillo

Region: Snake River Valley AVA, Idaho

Alcohol: 14.1%

Producer: Cinder

2015 Laissez Faire Red

2015 Laissez Faire Red Table Wine by Cinder

88 points

Medium ruby with youthful red fruits and Red Vine aromas giving way to a pinch of cardamom. The soft, mid-light palate has but a trace of tannin followed by moderate acidity. A no fuss, no frills wine. (MW, February 2017)

Price $16

Varietal: Red Blend

Region: Snake River Valley AVA

Alcohol: 14.1%

Producer: Cinder