Enjoying older wine the way it is

Tonight, at a family dinner, with my parents and my sister’s family, we drank a 2000 Dame de Montrose, the second wine from Château Montrose. It was delicious and  well-rounded, tannins nicely softened up, still a lovely amount of fruit, and that pleasant dustiness that comes to Bordeaux wines, especially those with a good dose of cabernet sauvignon. It was a great time to drink it, did perfect with the pork dish we had, and everyone loved it.

Now, was it better than it would have been two or three years ago? Probably not. But not worse, either. It was just in a different phase, with more mature characteristics than a few years before.

I’ve had several older wines, in the last couple of months. Some because of holiday meals when it seems especially appropriate to pull old and/or rare bottles, others just because I looked around the cellar and figured it was probably time to drink them. All of the wines I’m thinking of were over 10 years of age, some even over 20. Notably, there was a 1996 Château Ramage La Bâtisse from the Médoc, lovely and still in very nice shape. A 1995 Riesling Les Écaillers from Léon Beyer, all confit lemon and salty caramel, that lasted for days and days after opening. A 1989 Chinon from the Lenoir family (merci, Philippe, at The Ten Bells) and a 1989 Bourgueil from Domaine de la Chevalerie (merci, Pascaline, from Rouge Tomate) that proved without a doubt how cabernet franc can age remarkably well. There was also a 2000 Château Bouscassé, a Madiran that didn’t feel as overly oaky as I feared – though there was a fair bit of barrel toastiness in the profile.  And a 1997 Château Chasse Spleen Blanc, which proved to me, once again, that good white bordeaux (and good sauvignon, in general), seems to improve constantly over a couple of decades, with terrific, elegant floral and exotic notes building up in the wine.

With the exception of the Chasse-Spleen, none of these wines showed as definitely, irrefutably better than they would have a few years younger. In a couple of cases, they probably would have been just as good several more years down the line.

What I mean, here, is that none of those wines gave me the impression that I had missed the perfect moment to drink them, nor that I was having them too early for them to show their best. It didn’t feel to me as if there was a mythical peak, a perfect moment when they should have been tasted. But they were all good and interesting to drink. And in general, they were purchased at very reasonable prices.

There are some great wines that can take a long time to come into their own, and do seem to reach for a peak as they age. Having had a sip of Hermitage La Chapelle 1978, thanks to a rather fantastic New York sommelier who really likes to open bottles, I can tell you that was an example, right there. It had youth and maturity, all at once, openness and structure, the whole range of aromatics: a great, great wine. I’m grateful to have had even just a sip, in my life.

Other wines, like the moelleux chenins from the Loire, also come to mind. A good dozen years ago, I had a vertical of Moulin Touchais, a Coteaux du Layon that I’ve developed quite a liking for. The wines went back all the way to 1949, and reaching that vintage, it felt like you were still climbing up the stairs to get to higher ground. I sometimes think that the last sip of wine I should have in my life, on my deathbed, should be some 1969 Touchais, from my birth year.

In general however, wines that are able to age will mostly evolve, more than they will improve. I’ve seen that written and heard it said a number of times, generally with a sort of regret – as if it was kind of sad to have kept the wines for a long time, if nothing hyper-magical was going to happen to them. To me, it’s as silly as saying that women are only beautiful when young. A ridiculous idea. Bright youthfulness is not everything good about life, thankfully.

After these last few weeks of tasting, I disagree even more strongly than I did with this kind of regret. Maybe those good, but not exceptional wines don’t surpass themselves, with the passage of time, but they are good wines that remain good and are transformed, showing a different side of their personality, over the years. That is plenty, sometimes.

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