I thought I might clear up a few misconceptions concerning red wine varietals. Let's look them over:
Cabernet sauvignon: One of the great misconceptions is that all cabernet sauvignon ages well. This is not at all the case. Many folks, unfortunately, have put down in the cellar many bottles of this iconic red thinking that the wine will age well. For cabernet sauvignon to age well in the cellar two things need to happen; the wine needs to have been designed by the winery to cellar and the place for cellaring is designed for the purpose of aging wine. All red wines, including cabernet, must be intended by the winemaker to be set in the cellar. This means that the grapes need to be selected specifically and carefully from a superb vintage and possibly from a designated plot of vines. In the winery, careful steps are taken, especially with crushing, pressing and wood to ensure the best possible winemaking takes place for the wine to age well.
Cellaring takes place in a cool, dark and perfectly humidified space. This exact storing of the wine is crucial for any good long term result in any red wine designed for this purpose. By nature, Cabernet is pretty hardy and can take some abuse but we know that temperature over 75 degrees will hasten the maturity of even the best made wines. It is very important to think clearly about not only what cabernet to "put down" but also exactly where it is going.
- There are inexpensive pinot noir — Well, yes and no. There are inexpensive marginal pinot noir. The sad truth of the matter is that pinot has gotten very expensive and the better ones always stick in the over twenty five dollar range and shoot up from there, quickly. I think the problem with pinot noir is that there just is not an overabundance of premium sites for this sensitive and endearing grape. Pinot takes a very gentle hand to make well and must come from certain primo areas from great vineyard sites to really shine. When pinot noir is done well it can be truly a great experience indeed. We have seen outrageously fine pinot from Oregon and also from certain wonderful sites in California. I do not know of any high flying pinots from Washington State, currently.
- Claret is a varietal — No. Claret was and still is what the British call red wines from Bordeaux, France. In the United States, we have begun (for some odd reason) calling traditional Bordeaux varietal blends such as cabernet, merlot and petite verdot, "claret" and the name has stuck even though there is very little similarity, for the most part, between French Claret and American claret. French Bordeaux reds, in a major sense, are more austere and far less fruit forward than their American counterparts. This is due to the difference in soils and the very maritime nature of the French, being very close to two rivers and the Atlantic ocean which has a huge impact on the venerable and very old Bordeaux houses. To say that American claret and French Claret are much alike is a stretch in anyone's book. In the forty years of selling wine I find the claret issue a disservice to both countries. This is never to say that American claret can't be good. Yes it can be superb but vastly different than what we normally find in France. Most claret in this country hits from about twenty dollars and up which is where we find the French as well.
- Half bottles age as well as full bottles of wine — Rarely. The 375ml bottle size is a pretty handy item for a few glasses of wine when there aren't many folks around the table. As for the cellar, I find that a 375 versus a 750ml ages about 20 percent less well than its big brother. As an experiment some years ago I opened quite a few of the same vintage, same winery wines at the same time and found the smaller bottles to be maturing faster than the larger bottles. Nevertheless, 375ml of a very good vintage red intended for the cellar can age for up to ten years in optimal cellar conditions. I've had many ten year and older Barolo, Brunello and Bordeaux in 375ml which have aged very well.
Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.