I've said it a bunch of times -- I'm not a collector of anything. I don't collect stamps or snowglobes or even shoes. I don't even collect wine. My "cellar" is limited to about 40 to 50 bottles of wine, all of which will be consumed at some point in the next few years and replaced with other stuff to enjoy. My philosophy: you can't take it with you, so you may as well enjoy it now. Plebian? Maybe. Gratifying? Oh, yes.
That said, the wine I have in my small selection I'm excited about. I'm saving the bottles to enjoy on a day that I feel like I want it...sometimes just because and sometimes for an occasion.
So when I turned 21 again for the (I'm not telling you the number) time, I thought it would be nice to pop open the bottle of 2004 Clarendon Hills Hickinbotham Grenache, a very well esteemed wine from a small, French-trained winemaker in Australia that in previous times I have nearly passed out from due to its ridiculous, over the top deliciousness. At about $65, it's not an everyday wine, but a good treat for a special day.
Let me try to explain my love for this wine, since my memories of it are vivid. After decanting it for hours, I remember it being full of lush raspberry and blackberry fruit, tobacco, and leather, with the texture of liquid velvet. It was one of the most unabashed, smooth, balanced yet massive (meaning lots of alcohol and flavor) wines I've ever had. I loved this wine. I dreamt about it. It was so far afield from the more subtle, earthy wines I usually love but it was so damn good. A guilty pleasure for me.
So I saved 2 bottles of the 2004. I kept thinking of opening them, but just never did. They were stored in good conditions, and I kept eyeing them but didn't go for it. Then, finally, the other night, we brought a bottle to the French restaurant, Atmosphere (great place with a great wine list if you're ever in Atlanta), where we were having dinner for the anniversary of my 21st birthday.
The waiter opened and decanted the wine as soon as we sat down. While waiting for this little flower to mix with oxygen and show its beauty to us, we ordered two excellent glasses of Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne (which tasted like olive ciabatta bread and was fabulous). MC Ice and I took sinful sniffs, so excited just for a whiff after about 2 years of abstaining from this treat.
But the sniff was our first clue. The rich berry notes, the dark mocha, the leather and the tobacco were gone. A very light raspberry with a strong burn from the 14.5% alcohol were the only discernible smells. With a wine like this, that I expect to be unabashed, this was a horrible sign. It was a shadow of the wine I remembered.
With a little bit of dread, I drank it. Oy. The taste was even more blah. This wine was so muted. All the bold beauty was gone. It was just hot alcohol with a little bit of fruit. We waited longer to see if anything would change. Nothing. It had passed its prime. The wine was finished. It was done. It just sucked. Thankfully the wine list at the restaurant was great, so we ordered a lovely Bordeaux from Pomerol that was tasty with MC Ice's hanger steak and my mushroom and eggplant dish.
Still, though I wondered -- was it just bottle variation or was this wine not so ageable? I decided to pop open the other bottle when we got home to see. It was equally blah. I even left it in a decanter overnight. Same deal. Nothing much had changed. A little more fruit but more like a $10 Cotes-du-Rhone.
This is a sad but a cautionary tale.
Even though this is small lot wine made from meticulously cared-for vines, the high alcohol, fruit-forward nature of this wine actually worked against it and killed its aging potential. I did a little poking around on the internet to see what others had said about it, and Cellar Tracker (a great site where people record their wine notes) had some great info. In 2010, the wine seemed to consistently rock, similar to how I remember it. In 2011, there was a lot of variation in people's experiences with it -- some said it was still great, some had the same experience I did.
It's not a huge body of evidence, but my guess is that after 8 years, this wine is on the verge of falling apart and being over the hill. Some bottles are already dead, the rest is probably dying. It's fairly well documented (although some may argue) that high alcohol wines made with very ripe fruit tend to lose flavor and drinkability a lot sooner than those that have less fruit and more "backbone" -- or stuff like acid, tannin, and moderate alcohol, all of which are natural preservatives. Too much ripe fruit and not enough of the other stuff and you get a wine that's not built to last.
So what does all this mean? I'm writing as kind of a cautionary tale. If you have a great bottle that you're saving, think about drinking it, especially if what you liked about it was the rich fruit flavor. Wines are not stagnant. They change with time. If you buy the stuff to drink it and enjoy it, don't hold back. GO FOR IT! I'd hate to have what happened to me, happen to you. Not all wine gets better with age and if you miss the window for when it's great, you'll be disappointed.
My new rule of thumb -- if I've got a fruity wine, I'm drinking within 5 years. I'll age the French, Italian and Spanish stuff, but the others I'm drinking and I'm not going to feel bad about it! Too much reward in drinking it and too much risk in saving it.
What do you think? Leave a comment below or join the Facebook page, where there's sure to be a great discussion on the topic!