Some wines outlast conventional wisdom

Wine Press NorthwestSeptember 2, 2013 

Ken Robertson 09

Ken Robertson

The wines of the Pacific Northwest continue to amaze me almost every time I open an older bottle, especially whites. I regularly hear "experts" advise that white wines will be past their prime before they reach the tender age of 4 and reds before age 6. Well, it’s true that if you consume all your wines before they would qualify to enroll for kindergarten or first grade, you rarely will lose many to the ravages of age, unless you take little or no care in how you cellar them.

And it’s hard to argue with that. Then I discover a wine that defies that maxim and often discover some delightful nuances have developed while I wasn’t paying quite enough attention to something in my cellar. As a result, I’ve spent the last decade or so engaged in my own set of experiments in wine aging, some intentional, others by accident when a bottle slipped out of my memory banks or got misplaced.

For example, I recently opened a bottle of Pinot Gris made by Church & State wines back in 2005 from grapes grown in Stoney Hill Vineyard in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, alcohol content 13.9 percent.

By conventional wisdom, it should have been long dead. It was almost five years past the conventional “drink-by” date. The rather high alcohol content indicates the grapes were certainly fully ripe when picked, probably about 28 brix. And yet, it was just fine. Still plenty of crisp acidity, still some nice minerality, still aromatics of lime and Asian pear and corresponding flavors. In fact, it seemed to me to be just as good as the day my wife and I bought it at the winery on Vancouver Island in 2006.

That is not a unique experience. A bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s plain old gazillion-cases-produced-every-year Riesling from 2007 recently showed it possessed the same aging powers. And the upscale version, a bottle of Ste. Michelle’s 2006 Eroica was a deeper gold than I remembered, but its bright acidity, minerality and petrol and citrus aromatics were undiminished. The flavor profile included dried pineapple, lime and white peach. It was still excellent, despite being seven years old. I don’t plan to open the remaining bottle of 2006 for another year at least.

Among the Northwest’s whites, I wouldn’t hesitate to age Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and dry Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer, especially if they are lower in alcohol (say 12 percent or less) and display plenty of crisp acidity when young.

The whites I would be leery of letting reach more than age 3 are more heavily oaked Chardonnays, most Viogniers — largely because of my experience with California versions from too-ripe grapes — and the other Rhone whites such as Roussanne and Marsanne. The key to aging well in wine is acidity, which usually means lower alcohol.

Which leads us to the really serious part of the topic: What are we to do about red wines, which are supposed to be the wines to coddle in the cellar until they reach their long anticipated perfect age? Well, changes in wine-making styles, warming temperatures in the Northwest and the urgent need for most winery owners to make bank loan payments have changed my mind about reds in recent years.

There are too many “fruit bombs” made from extremely ripe grapes, especially in hot years, which result in 15 percent alcohol or more, a boatload of readily apparent fruit right away and low acidity. If you love these wines and your cellar is loaded with them, my advice is drink now. After four or five years, many will begin to lose what little acidity they initially possessed and likely will lose much of their fruit, leaving a boatload of alcohol. Not a winning combination.

That said, Northwest reds have always amazed me because they last so well. Back in March 1985, I interviewed Bob Thompson, co-author of “The California Wine Book,” and one the topics we discussed was how long-lived Northwest red wines are. We were discussing Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Cabernet Sauvignons, and he told me he was amazed at “how little they moved” as they aged. At the time, Ste. Michelle was about the only Northwest winery with more than a decade of experience in producing reds.

That thought prompted me to get into my wine cellar and dig out my two of my oldest Ste. Michelle cabs, a 1999 from Cold Creek Vineyard (now 14 years old) and its sibling from 2004. Both were amazing. My wife preferred the 1999, which displayed black cherry fruit and cedar in its aromatics, followed by black cherry fruit, chocolate, mint, surprising acidity and a bit of red raspberry and huckleberry in the finish. Alcohol was 14.1 percent.

I preferred the 2004 version from Cold Creek. The cork simply oozed with mint chocolate, which was reflected in its aromas and flavors, plus Bing cherries, graphite, huckleberries, and it still had good acidity. Alcohol was 14.5 percent. Both were outstanding wines.

While cleaning out the older wines, I also dug out a 2002 Barnard Griffin tulip label Syrah (14.2 percent alcohol) and found it needed time in the glass or the decanter to open up. None of these three wines was anywhere near to over the hill.

So the best advice I can offer on aging Northwest reds is take good care of them and don’t get in a hurry except with those hot year fruit bombs.

--Ken Robertson, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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