Cellar Notes

Cellar Selections
Wines in this section are those that need or will improve with age. Some, as noted, may be quite drinkable now, but have the structure to age for at least the minimum period recommended, and often well beyond the stated maximum.
Note:  Prices are Suggested Retail Price (srp), may vary in some markets

*Musings on aging wine.....*
A question I'm often asked:  how do you know which wines to age, and which ones won't?
Not a quick answer, actually. Of course it's obvious with some wines--red Bordeaux in good vintages, California cabernets that cost more than $20 a bottle....serious syrahs, Rhône reds, Brunellos and Barolos, SuperTuscans....but even lesser well-structured reds.
      Most red wines that are balanced will certainly improve with bottle age, anywhere from 2-3 years for moderately priced ($12 to $18) merlots, pinot noirs, syrahs to 5, 7, 10 or 15 years for similarly priced cabernets, bigger syrahs and merlots, cabernet franc, sangiovese, claret blends. Even wines meant to drink young will often hold or improve with a few years on them. Recently I opened a three-year-old Barbera with robust and concentrated flavors. It was a little tough and tannic the first night, but the next night it was perfect--smooth and round, the tannins mellowed, the fruit more forward.
       Some wine drinkers, however, like vigorous, muscular reds and like the tannin that gives the wines an edge. Chacun à son gout--to each his own taste.  Yet I've had more than one person in my wine classes say to me--"'Gee, I really like big young reds, but after the first sip or two I find  I don't like them as much. Why is that?"  It's because with the first sip or two you get the rich, ripe fruit of a big wine....but then the tannin comes up hard, builds on the palate and the wine just can't give any more--it needs aging to evolve and give more of what it promised. See  B.E.'s Discoveries
       Time in bottle does what nothing else can. Over time, whether it's two or three years, or 10, chemical changes occur--tannins soften and precipitate out, pigments darken and eventually lighten, creating sediment. I always decant wines 10 years old or older. But then I often decant very young wines when they seem stiff and tannic--the aeration can open them up and soften the tannins--aging them in a sense. This is why when you open a young red that is too young and tight to really enjoy, it may taste better the next night....or the next. One that recently did:  Catena  Malbec from Argentina, dark and opaque, quite tannic, somewhat hard when we opened it. The next night it was much softer and more appealing.
          I make it a practice never to throw out  a young red until I've tasted it the second or third day--if it hasn't improved I can toss it, but sometimes it's a revelation.

Wines for current and future pleasure:

Pinot Noir.  A frequent pick with many of my favorite dishes....because its spicy, ruby-rich flavors so nicely complement roast fowl, game (especially duck, goose, wild turkey)
 I love the various incarnations of Pinot Noir, from the taut well-structured wines of France's Burgundy regions -- the te de Nuits (richer, denser appellations such as Nuits-St. Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée) and the Côte de Beaune (the lighter but elegant Volnays, Beaunes) and Côtes Chalonnaise (earthier but simpler Givry, Mercurey), to the elegance and balance of Oregon Pinots, to the extravagant fruit of Sonoma's Russian River Valley.

         If you are out in in Sonoma, be sure to include the Russian River Valley on your itinerary. Just out from Santa Rosa is Russian Hill Vineyards, a wine estate that commands a spectacular view of the eastern portion of the valley, with vineyards stretching in all directions--a must-visit if you find yourself in or near Santa Rosa.
Russian Hill 2011, RR Valley, $35.  The basic Pinot from both estate and purchased grapes is a congenial and deliciously sippable red. If you want to introduce someone to the appeal of Pinot Noir, this is the place to start --a great choice for lighter meats, grilled porcini, or wild mushroom pastas.
Russian Hill 2010 Pinot Noir Sunnyview Vyd  Russian River  $60.  Sunny indeed! Sunnyview produces fruit of great warmth and richness--pour a glass, sit back and bask in its delectable flavors of sun-drenched berries and cherries. Would be fabulous with roast loin of pork, or veal shank.
Russian Hill Tara Vineyard 2010, $54.  This is my favorite Pinot from Russian Hill--consistently intriguing for its spicy fruit and excellent balance. The 2010 is quite beautiful, deeper and more structured than the other wines--intense dark cherry and ripe berry fruit with a nice grip of tannin and oak that accents but doesn't intrude. Probably even lovelier in two to three years, but try it now with roast duck or grilled duck breast.

I think one of the things Pinot Noir/Burgundy fanatics love about the variety is a certain sauvage character--a kind of wildness of flavor that sometimes expresses as earthiness...or wild rose...wild berries rather than cultivated...a certain woodsiness (not woodiness)--that is, forest floor, woodlands after rain. When pinot noir is allowed to get too ripe this "wild" character is obliterated and the result is a ripe fruit bomb that could be almost any variety.
       I'm a Pinot/Burgundy fanatic, so I love this flavor characteristic. It's showing now in the Merry Edwards 2012 Russian River Pinot, the winery's so-called entry-level Pinot ($45).  When I get that in RR Pinots, I'm thrilled, captivated--wish that I had more bottles because -- though very drinkable now, with the likes of grilled duck breast, roast loin of pork, even roast leg of lamb -- I think it will be even better with some bottle age (I recently tasted the 2007--nigh on to perfect!). This one is beautifully balanced, the key to aging, and likely will be even more interesting and intriguing from, say, 2016-2020.
At dinner with friends recently we opened their bottle of Merry Edwards 2002 Windsor Garden Vyd--wow! It was beautiful--aromatic, silky in texture, spicy flavors, smooth and long. Oh, the delights of aging!

Cabernet Sauvignon
Roast Lamb or Beef:  Many reds work with beef and lamb but fine Cabernet Sauvignon is a noble match. There are some excellent ones out there right now:

Jordan  2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, $50-60  Elegantly structured, a little tauter than the 2009, but still very approachable with dark berry fruit tinged with hints of licorice. 86% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot, 7% petit verdot, it is balanced and potentially complex, a standout in the somewhat uneven 2010 vintage. Excellent potential for complexity within a decade.
Jordan 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, $50.  An outstanding Cabernet-rich, beautifully  structured. I’ve admired the balance and suppleness of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon since the first vintage of 1976. Jordan ages their Cabernet, releasing it in its fourth year—it is often so harmonious it will complement a grilled steak or rack of lamb at that young age, and can do so at any age. A recent retrospective tasting at the winery revealed that in several vintage, but spectacularly in the Jordan 2001—at its peak at the moment and likely to hold there for several more years.  The 2009 reminds me of that 2001--better lay some away (but try one first!).


Zins for hedonists.....

Sin Zin, Alexander Valley Vyds, $20, Alexander Valley, Sonoma. If the label doesn't seduce you, the wine in the bottle will--typically luxuriant ripe flavors and the heady aroma of blackberries, raspberries and black plums. Big and handsome, as this wine always is--powerful without being overwhelming.

Ridge Zinfandel 2011 Paso Robles, $28-30  Oh so good! Bright, juicy berry flavors typical of Zins from the Paso Robles region on California's central coast; long finish, very satisfying to drink now. Sold out at the winery, still available in the marketplace and online. Ridge 2010 York Creek Zin, with   7% Petite Sirah, is more tannic and bigger, best with 3-5 years in bottle, though I'm sure it could take 10 and become rather claret-like.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2009 Zinfandel Somers Ranch, $27--be on the lookout for this hugely concentrated, powerful Zin--not a lot of it made. The very essence of Dry Creek Zinfandel, with intense berry flavors, accents of black pepper enveloped in big, rich fruit. More plentiful is Dry Creek 2010 Heritage Zinfandel -- less complex but very drinkable and appealing.

Old Vines.   Sonoma has some of the oldest stands of  Zinfandel  in existence. These wines don't yield much--I'm reminded of what Spencer Tracy said about Katherine Hepburn in "Pat and Mike" -- "ain't much meat on her, but what's there is cherce." That's how it is with these 60, 80, 100-year-old vines, gnarled and thick, yielding up nectarlike juice that lends unique character to wines labeled "Old Vine."  The first winery actually to use Old Vines on the label was Dry Creek Vineyards.  Dry Creek Old Vines Zinfandel 2010, Dry Creek Valley, $25,  which is nicely packed with rustic blackberry and black raspberry fruit.
Other old-vine Zins to look for:  Quivira,  Cline, Rodney Strong Knotty Vines, Trentadue

                               NOTE:   prices are suggested retail; they may often be found for less.

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©Barbara Ensrud