One of the most frequent wine-tasting questions I receive involves bottles of wine that readers have found, perhaps inherited from a relative or discovered stashed away in an unexpected place.
The question is usually framed with hopeful optimism: "My grandfather left me a bottle of 1987 White Zinfandel. Is it worth anything?" Or a happy couple wants to know what they should expect of the modest wine that they set aside 25 years ago to save for their silver wedding anniversary.
More often than not, it's my sad duty to caution them against hoping for much. My standard response to this frequently asked question goes this way: "Very few wines are meant for aging ... and the rare bottle that does merit 'cellaring' ... needs to be kept in a cool, quiet place, lying on its side so the cork stays wet. A constant cellar temperature of 55F (13C) is recommended. Lacking these circumstances, the chances are that an ancient bottle will disappoint."
But, I generally add, "Assuming you have a sense of adventure - and a sense of humor - there's no reason not to try the wine. Most likely it will have turned brown, flat and dull, with no aromas or flavors that you'll recognize as wine. But it can't hurt you - wine doesn't turn toxic or unhealthful with great age, it simply loses its good fruit flavors and becomes unpalatable. And on occasion, particularly if the cork is sound and the bottle appears normally full, without excessive sediment, an old bottle that wasn't intended for aging can pleasantly surprise you."
Indeed. And therein lies today's story.
The other day I joined with a local group of wine-loving friends to help one of our peers prep for an upcoming Master Sommelier exam. I can't go into much detail - the specifics of these exams are kept confidential to maintain the challenge - but suffice it to say that, for practice in decanting, one of the group had dug up a 25-year-old bottle of very cheap French wine, a modest generic Bordeaux of an indifferent vintage, originally intended for bistro service by the pitcher, at best, and that by conventional wisdom should have been drunk up by the early 1980s.
Much hilarity attended the opening (which the victim decanted professionally, by the way, using a basket to hold it horizontal and a candle to watch for the first chunks of sludgy sediment and avoid pouring them into the decanter).
Naturally every wine "geek" in the room had to take a taste, or at least a sniff, if only for the sake of education.
Surprise! The wine was sound, and surprisingly good. Its color, although showing some bronze, was still a healthy reddish-purple; and its aromas showed a complex mix of dark fruits and subtle earthy notes of toast, coffee and leather. Light and delicate in flavor, "sweet" old-Bordeaux fruit and crisp acidity showed everything you would expect of a well-aged Bordeaux of much more respectable pedigree.
Am I now recommending that everyone start socking away low-end Bordeaux for the long haul? Well, no. But this story's simple moral suggests that it's never wise to make flat, no-exceptions assumptions about wine. And if you ever happen to run across a well-cellared bottle of Rineau 1979 Appellation Bordeaux Controlee imported to the U.S. during the early '80s by Bacardi Imports of Miami and New York City, give me a call. I'll come help you test it.
I also suggest that you bear this story in mind any time you find an interesting old bottle that you believe is too old to be any good. You're probably correct ... but it never hurts to pull the cork and make sure.
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Friday, Oct. 15, 2004