When he’s at home in Germany, winemaker Ernst Loosen rarely drinks a bottle of Riesling that's younger than a quarter-century old.
That’s not difficult to do when your family winery has been around for more than 200 years. If you make enough wine and you put enough of it away to hold onto for 25 or more years, then you can drink some of the most interesting wine in the world.
Loosen so believes in the ability of Riesling to age, he has talked Chateau Ste. Michelle into doing something similar, so it started an aged Riesling project. Loosen and Ste. Michelle began partnering in 1999 to create Eroica, now the most famous Riesling in the United States. It uses Washington grapes, and it’s proving to be a wine that ages tremendously.
So now, Ste. Michelle releases its current vintage (typically one or maybe two years old), followed by an older wine — at least five years old. The winery holds back at least 250 cases of each vintage with the intention of releasing them later.
Most of these older wines go to restaurants, along with a little bit being sold to retailers. This is where it gets tricky: If you see an 8-year-old Riesling on a wine list (the 2008 is the current release of the aged Eroicas), you might think the winery hasn't been able to sell its wines, and that can reflect poorly on the winery and the restaurant.
But the right kind of restaurant with the right kind of clientele will see an 8-year-old Eroica Riesling as an opportunity.
And that’s why it’s only 250 cases a year out of more than 20,000 cases produced. The slice of restaurateurs and consumers who will understand and appreciate an older riesling is pretty thin.
These older Eroica Rieslings also are for sale at the winery (though not on the website), in case an interested consumer wants to purchase them.
And why in the world might we want an older Riesling? Wouldn’t we be better off drinking them when they’re young and fresh? Certainly, Rieslings are beautifully delicious in their youth. But Rieslings that start out with precise balance of sweetness, flavor and acidity can gain fascinating complexity after a few years. A quarter-century-old Riesling can be simply stunning, a rare treat to savor.
But it’s not simply Riesling that ages well. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with a great climate for wine. In Washington’s Columbia Valley, it's the warm days and cool nights from August through October. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is on the edge of viticultural viability, and that means fascinating flavors in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is farther north, meaning even greater shifts in day-to-night temperatures and stunning fruit-to-acid ratios. And Idaho’s Snake River Valley has high-elevation vineyards that bring their own levels of complexity.
All of this means that the opportunity is here for us to hold onto our wines a few more years and discover a whole other level of intricacy and fascination. We could begin to understand what Europeans have known for years: that aged wines are really enjoyable.
But the wine industry isn’t exactly built for that.
First of all, it’s nearly impossible for a winery to purposely do what Ste. Michelle is doing with its aged Eroica program. Wineries are in the business of selling wine, not holding it back. They have mortgages to cover and payrolls to meet. They have a certain allotment of shelf space in retail stores, and if a shelf goes empty with nothing to replace it, another winery can take it over.
There are the complications of taxes, sales people, bankers and government-generated forms related to the fact that we’re dealing with alcohol. Frankly, it’s much better to sell it and move on to the next vintage.
And as consumers, we generally have little patience. We age our wine on the way home from the store — and not much longer. We live in a drink-it-now society.
To be honest, most wine being produced in this world — including Washington — is not meant for aging. When you buy a $15 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, the winemaker made it with the idea that you'll drink it on Tuesday, not in 10 years. The only way you're going to age that bottle is if you misplace it for a decade.
But wines that are blessed with great balance of fruit, acid, lower alcohol and (with reds) tannin have the opportunity to become something much more fascinating if only we can hold onto it for a few more years.
I think all wineries could learn from the aged Eroica program and maybe hold back a few cases of wines, then re-release them as library selections to their wine clubs (I see a few doing that already). Done properly, the most savvy customers will love the opportunity to purchase properly cellared wines that are a decade old.
A few restaurants — particularly The Herbfarm in Woodinville — already do this for the wineries, which is why we can occasionally find deep verticals of certain wines.
At least one wine shop — Compass Wines in Anacortes, Wash. — also will hold wines for several years before putting them on store shelves or selling to customers who get it. It is a tremendous commitment for owner Doug Charles and his small wine shop, but he understands the importance, and so do his customers.
Let us all look for the right opportunities to enjoy older Northwest wines. An entirely different experience awaits us if we can manage it.