A First Course in Wine: From Grape to Glass. Copyright 2013; Race Point Publishers, NY. 224 pages. Forward by Mario Batali.

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The Older They Are, The Harder They Fall

Older vintage wines can be excellently mysterious and captivating; a lethal combination that keeps one wanting to taste older and older and older wines.  Unfortunately this can turn into an expensive habit, but it can ultimately be worth it, depending upon your what you’re drinking and when you’re drinking it.  Unfortunately, the emptiness and disappointment felt when tasting a wine that’s over the hill and past its prime is disappointing; like just missing a train as its pulling out of the station, never to return.

At a recent tasting in New York, I had the privilege of tasting through nearly twenty different vintages of a famous Tuscan red

Winemaker Alessandro Cellai gets down to business with oak barrels.

wine called, I Sodi di San Niccolo’:  the flagship wine of the Castellare winery in Tuscany.  Based in the heart of Chianti, the estate doubles as a winery and wildlife refuge; producing excellent viticultural gems and preserving animal species that are threatened by extinction.  Winemaker, Alessandro Cellai, is the magician behind the wines at Castellare.  His ubiquitous influence on the reputation of Tuscan reds has helped catapult this category to the forefront of the Italian wine market.

The wine itself is based on Tuscany’s principle grape, Sangiovese, with a splash of another native grape, Malvasia Nera.  The finished wine is usually strong and gripping in its youth and develops into a silky and ethereal wine with age.

Sangiovese is only one of a handful of grapes that have the genetic makeup to make age-worthy red wines.  It’s a common misconception that all wines can age, but in fact, less than one percent of all wine produced globally is meant to age longer than five years.  Certain grapes are blessed with the unique levels of acidity and skin tannin, to craft wines intended for years of slumbering.

Chemically speaking, as wines age, the tannin and acidity break down and the color pigments in the wine fade away due to oxidation.  For red wines this means the color turns from ruby red and purple to dark crimson with brick undertones and eventually brown.  For white wines, the color changes to dark yellow, caramel, and eventually to brown as well.

Some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the vertical tasting of this particular wine:

1979 – The oldest wine in the tasting.  The color was pale brown.  On the nose the wine smelled tired and weak.  Although the flavor profile was also gone, the wine still had a tart acidity and lively mouthfeel.

1981 – Brown and ruby red color.  Aroma offered strong notes of balsamic and cherry and the tannin still showed signs of life, but nothing significant.

1983 – Nutty and marsala-like in flavor.  Tart and unbalanced.  Unfortunate for my birthyear.

The wine label changes every year, featuring one of the many different bird species that inhabit the wildlife preserve on the Castellare property.

1985 – Great vintage.  1985 was one of the better vintages in the last thirty years in all of Italy as most growing regions had immaculate weather conditions that resulted in very balanced grapes, and therefore very balanced wines.  This wine was still young and fresh with equal parts leather, cherry, and spice notes.  A confirmation that wines from this year still have a way to go before they reach their zenith.

1988 – Strong, firm, and powerful.  The wine had slightly meaty and savory notes with dark purple colors and moderate tannins.  The ’88 was the sleeper wine of the tasting.   The vintage was never a favorite among the critics, but many of the wines from this vintage are still showing well and are perfect pairings for braised meats and other delicate entrees.  My favorite wine of the tasting.

1990 – The first wine of the tasting that tasted relatively too young.  The tannin and acidity were fierce, still masking the silky fruit flavors of properly-aged Sangiovese.

1995 – Dead aromatically; although there was a lively grip on the palate. The wine was clumsy and stern, like a drunk buffoon at soccer game.

1997 – Amazing wine with balanced fruit and acidity.  The color was dark and concentrated.  Truly a wine that is enjoyable now, but will benefit from another ten to fifteen years of aging.  Purely impregnable.

1999 – Dark and supple in color and taste.  Very intense and direct.  Like a heavyweight fighter in its prime, just dealing blows of tannin and power left and right.

2002 – the year was awful in the Chianti zone as late summer and autumn hail ripped through many of the vineyards.  Anyone who made wine that year could only do so on a minimal level.  This particular wine was surprisingly great.  The power and depth of a great age-worthy bottle were absent, but the wines was soft, approachable, and had balanced levels of fruit and tannin.  A very pleasant surprise.

Look for more great wines from Castellare including Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, Vin Santo, Cabernet, and Merlot.

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