Appreciating a well-aged wine

I had a rare and wonderful wine experience the other evening. A fine gentleman opened for a small group of us — some very old, very fine wine which had been resting in his cellar for some years. Along with these wines from his cellar, he also tasted us on older wines which he had recently purchased from various cellars. Along with these gems, all of which were red wines from great appellations, food was served.

There were 30 of us, a few being in the wine industry and the rest being friends of this man who admitted that they were not wine "pros."

Our host served 15 red wines and every one was top-class from very fine producers. All were more than 20 years old; a few were at the 30-year-old mark.

These tastings can be very profound on a few levels. The first level of appreciation, when evaluating these wines tells me the historical perspective of the winery involved. For example, some of these wines were from venerable Bordeaux houses and the expectation was that, because of an historical track record of long-lived wines, these wines should have weathered the years (if stored correctly) in good shape. Knowing the houses well, this is a pretty sound assumption, especially with the particular vintages presented that evening.

The second level of appreciation is the condition these (or any) older wines were stored in. This is the most critical part of keeping wines intended for aging. One can have the best wine from the finest producer in any given great vintage but if storage is not optimal, or at least solid, the wines will simply not age well. I have come across, in more than 40 years of wine retailing, lovely wines with top pedigrees ruined by bad storage. The best conditions, generally, for storage are temperatures between 45 and 60 degrees, average humidity, dark, no vibration and stored on the side for wines with corks.

The third level of older wine appreciation is the understanding that not all red or white wines are intended by the winemaker to be destined for the cellar. Simply because a wine seems "robust" or "feels" like it could or should age, this is not always the case. Many red wines produced today are not wines destined to be aged and are not treated as such by the wine producer. Years ago I found a wine article that suggested the difference between the American consumer and the European consumer was that the European consumer, many times, "kept" wine purchased for later consumption. I found that in my travels in Europe many folks had adequate storage for wines, in part, because cellars were a big part of house construction, especially in France and Italy. This, many times, can make for ideal storage with minimum upkeep for the wine lover. In America, wines are generally purchased for consumption within the week or for the night of purchase. Winemakers are understanding of this and adjust accordingly with softer, more "approachable" releases for near-term consumption.

The fourth level of older wine appreciation and evaluation is the understanding that we should expect different taste sensations from older wines than newer releases. One should not expect, for example, youthful flavors, tight oak and freshness in older wines. Many who experience older wines, say, more than 10 years old, are many times disappointed by these wines because they do not understand that these wines have become nuance-driven instead of power-driven — that subtle flavors are the key to older releases and are, therefore, the charm of the wine.

If you are thinking of putting wine in a cellar, get advice from a wine professional before spending your hard-earned cash. I do think that you will be well-compensated for doing so, as nothing in the wine world compares with a well-aged wine that was intended for the cellar. It is the joy of wine appreciation. The 15 older wines were, by the way, profound in every sense of the word and my hat goes off to my very generous host.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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