Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On Aging - East Coast Wineries Making Wines That Stand the Test of Time

“I guess I'm going through a life crisis or something, I don't know,” says Alvy Singer (AKA Woody Allen) at the beginning of ANNIE HALL. “I, uh ... and I'm not worried about aging.  I'm not one o' those characters, you know. Although I'm balding slightly on top, that's about the worst you can say about me.  I, uh, I think I'm gonna get better as I get older, you know?  I think I'm gonna be the - the balding virile type, you know, as opposed to say the, uh, distinguished gray, for instance, you know?  'Less I'm neither o' those two. Unless I'm one o' those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism…”

Ok, so right now I am a little paunchier than I’d like to be. A little more the soft Scarecrow than hard ab-ed Tin Man. Of course, I have a steel frame underneath (nothing like a juicy little rationalization every once in a while). I think I’m trading in some things for others. I may not be as tight and hard-bodied, I’m a little roomier around the hips than I’d like to be. I may not be as aggressive and certain in my opinions as I was in my youth. I might be slightly more patient with others, a little more understanding now. My politics back then was absolute, today I’d prefer to find common ground. I used like my rock’n’roll hard driving and loud, today I like to listen to my jazz a little lower with a good speaker system.

Now, I have to admit that I have been drinking a lot more old wines over the last three years. It’s not because I’ve taken an interest in them above or beyond younger wines. I wasn’t trying to prove a point. I’ve been drinking older wines because I am getting older and I have a lot of wines that are maturing, and I want to drink them before they get any older. I am drinking them out of necessity. This is one of the things I realized when I started to reflect upon my cellar when I hit middle age. Did I drink all my older wines? Don’t be absurd. Did I clear out my cellar of a couple of cases over the last three years? Yep. However, ashamedly, I did fill the holes in my racks with some newer wines.
There was another reason. Over the past four or five years I’ve gotten old enough, sadly, to find bottles I forgot I had. And they were old. And sometimes the wines I attempted to age went bad, and the accidents more often than not, turn out to be happy ones. This was not a project I started, but rather a reflection back initiated as I was going through some old postings, trying to organize what I’d written about when I realized I saw a pattern. The pattern I realized was that east coast winemakers were making great wines that were standing the test of time.
Overall, I began drinking older wines from time to time since I began blogging, and the pace has picked up since late 2009/early 2010. Since 2011 I have been reviewing them relatively steadily. I think it’s somewhat true of aging wine as well. There’s no question that how well a wine ages reflects upon the quality of the region. It is one of the bench marks that wine regions must hurdle. Because, of course, the opposite is considered very true – wine regions that produce wines that do not age well do not produce good wines….let alone great ones. It’s not a matter of whether you like your wines younger or older, it is empirical, wines that age well are well thought of. That is a truism in the wine world.
And the point of this piece is – the East Coast is making great, age-able wines. Wines that are world class. Are the wines of the region great because they age well? No. Is that a reason to consider them great wines? Yes. It is further proof that this is so. Sometimes, I think this region suffers from an inferiority complex.
In Annie Hall, Alvy continues, “The-the other important joke for me is one that's, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud's wit and its relation to the unconscious.  And it goes like this-I'm paraphrasing: Uh ... "I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member."” 
And that’s the key joke about East Coast winemaking. Great wines are being made. It seems like East Coast winemakers are not allowed to say, “We are making great wines.” But indeed, they are. And age-ability to me is one of the proofs.
When we talk about aging, what are the touchstones in experiencing the wines? What are the hallmarks of a well-aged wine? Well, several differences exist between drinking newer and older wines.
So how old are we talking about? Well, the wine doesn’t have to be from the Eisenhower administration, but I’m thinking a minimum of seven to ten years. The great wines, like classic French 1855 Classification Bordeaux and Spanish Riojas Gran Riservas, they can easily withstand this type of aging, and in some instances benefit from it. I do not put myself out there as an expert, but rather as a writer who has experienced enough to at least translate some of my own experiences and impressions. And if I have any understanding or appreciation of older wines, it is because of Kevin Zraly, who has been so good as to take me under his wing and has been generous with me in his wisdom and knowledge.
The color. White wines get darker, and red wines get lighter. White wines will go from a light or straw color all the way to a gold color, almost a light sherry color. Red wines will lose their dark red or purple-y hue, and start to fade, lots of times with the wine at the edges of the glass showing an orange-ish hue.
The nose. Kevin Zraly in his master classes insists that new wines have aroma, only old wines have bouquet. What Kevin is trying to impart is that the nose of an older wine has had time to combine, to chemically come together, as opposed to the nose being a sum of parts. In my experience in a younger wine the nose consists of fruit and most likely wood (if we’re talking an age-able red). You smell strong fruits, hints of wood like spice and vanilla. In an older wine, the fruit is still there, but the smells are a little more muted, more blended. The vanilla and spice aren’t as pronounced. There’s usually the smell of fallen leaves or forest floor. Now, the best way to explain this, as Kevin does, is to taste the wines from youngest to oldest, and ask participants to leave some wine in their first glass. At the end of the tasting, he’ll ask people to go back to their youngest wine. In most cases, while you thought the first wine totally drinkable when you first tasted it, now smells like a glass of grape juice with maple syrup in it. Time erodes the edge of these two flavors, and melds them by the end. They become integrated. So too, the nose ages.
The taste. The fruit is fresher in the younger wine. More pronounced. The tannins tend to be big, especially in a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot. In an older wine, the fruit mellows, combines. In my limited experience (I am not Kevin Zraly) I find individual fruit flavors tend to blend to fruit stews and compotes. The tannins are a little softer. And a somewhat tomato-y or forest floor materials in the glass. Not in an unpleasant way, but in a way that shows the breakdown of the characteristics as they now blur.
Do I prefer older wines? I am not sure. I’ve had fun aging some wines. I’ve aged other by accident. I once drank a ten year old bottle of Beajoulais Villages and a fourteen year old bottle of Rioja Crianza, both wines are meant to be opened and imbibed within two to four years of their sale. I’ve also let a dozen or so bottles go way too long…I almost came to tears on one or two.
Like any other wine experience, sometime I prefer them young, and times I’m looking to experience an older wine. I have to say, there is nothing like caring for a bottle for years, storing it in your cellar, and then opening it, especially with friends, and enjoying the joy inside. It is a feeling of accomplishment to be able to pull out an old bottle for friends who are of a like mind. Exciting in fact. I’m such a geek.
What were some of the highlights? An old Benmarl bottle I drank with Matt Specarelli and Lenn Thompson. A Pellegrini Merlot 1993. A Bartlett Estate 1994 in 2011 at Kevin Zraly’s Guiness World Record uncorking after his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Beard Foundation. An Old Fields 2001 Chardonnay. A Sherwood House 2001 Chardonnay. The 1998 Ice Wine from Hunt Country. The Linden 2003. The Vynecrest Vignoles 2000. A Paumanoak Assemblage 2001. Pellegrini Vineyards Vinter's Pride Encore North Fork 1995.
What are the downsides of aging? White wines turn to sherry or vinegar. Red wines turn to vinegar, rarely sherry. Fallen leaves turn to mushrooms or cellar floors. Color breaks down to a darker sherry or to a brownish mess. In short, money and time, poured down the drain. Ugh! And this is not unique to east coast wine. I save a bunch of Chateau Neuf de Pape and some Gattinara only to find out I'd held on too long. I noticed no difference in the amount of spoilage from east coast to anywhere else.
Here’s some of the wines I have tried:
Hunt Country Vidal Ice Wine Finger Lakes 1998 (NY)
Blue Mountain Cabernet Franc 2003 (PA)
Medolla Merlot North Fork 2003 (NY)
Linden Claret 2003 (VA)
Borghese Private Reserve North Fork 2001 (NY)
Borghese Meritage North Fork 2000 (NY)
Hopewell Valley Rosso Della Valle Pennsylvania 2003 (NJ)

Dr. Konstantin Frank Johannisberg Riesling Semi-Dry 2001 (NY)
Pellegrini Merlot North Fork 1993 (NY)
Kreutz Creek Holiday Wassail 2006 (PA)
The Old Field Chardonnay North Fork 2001 (NY)
Paumanok Assemblage North Fork 2001 (NY)
Rappahannok Viognier 2001 (VA)
Unionville Vineyards Chambourcin 1999 (NY)
Bartlett Estate Wild Blueberry Dry 1994 (ME)
Sherwood House Chardonnay North Fork 2001 (NY)
Benmarl Late Harvest Vignoles Hudson River Region 1988 (NY)
Chaddsford Late Harvest Style Riesling 2002 (PA)
Vynecrest Vignoles 2000 (PA)
Pellegrini Vineyards Vintner's Pride Encore North Fork 1995 (NY)
Lenz Cuvee Methode Champenoise North Fork 1999 (NY)
Lenz Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon North Fork 2002 (NY)
Lenz Old Vines Merlot North Fork 2002 (NY)
Pellegrini Vineyards Merlot Unfiltered North Fork 1998 (NY)
It represents a large swath of wines from across the east coast. It’s broad strokes. I envision in the next three to five years having some of the larger, older wineries do library tastings for the press. Maybe the regional branding folks will organize tastings of older wines. The Finger Lakes. Long Island. The Hudson Valley. Virginia. These regions should be organizing vertical tastings of their best wines going back five, six, seven, ten years. The media, the press, the bloggers need to see this laid out. They need to taste the proof!
I hardly think the few number of wines listed here stands as unassailable nor are they a good substitute for a larger more important sampling. I’d like to see a few more hybrid varietals, more merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I’d like to see wines even older wines. I think other writers, other organizations, other bodies, will provide more in depth more conclusive evidence of fine wines and their ability to age with a provenance of the east coast. I notice that the folk in the Virginia wine mafia are pulling out older bottles from time to time, and that the New York Cork Report also is reviewing older vintages. These groups, I think, will offer more conclusive result in years to come about their specific regions.
That said, this is the first salvo of a large number of articles sure to come on aging East Coast wines. East coast winemakers belong at the table of the great winemakers. The evidence is there, and will continue to build.

In the end, I will continue to drink a combination of younger and older wines. I keep drinking different wines because I want to experience the different flavors, textures, and blends that make wine so interesting. It’s like Alvy Singer says at the end of Annie Hall, “I-I thought of that old joke, you know, this-this-this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy.  He thinks he's a chicken." And, uh, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" And the guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs." Well, I guess that's pretty much how how I feel about relationships.  You know, they're totally irrational and crazy and absurd and ... but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us, we need the eggs.”
These are some of reviews as they appeared.