Sunday, January 25, 2015

No Country for Old Wines - The Paradox of Young vs. Old

Just hours on the ground here in Italy. I’m spending what’s left of the weekend in Venice, which tonight is the most serene of republics. January is a time when the tourists go elsewhere, like Cuba or Thailand, when Venice is usually damp and cold. But there is a warm front and the weather, though misty, isn’t bone chilling.

Over a bottle of Grand Cru Champagne and some cicchetti (small plates) my host and I talked about everything under the sun. Bordeaux, Paris, the price of West Texas crude oil, the house of Saud, anything and everything. The subject of aged wine came up. My friend has a deep cellar and long experience with the great wines of France and Italy. “I think right now a Barolo or a 3rd growth Bordeaux, about 15 years old, would be just perfect to drink,” he said. The idea of drinking older wines vs. enjoying them younger, it's something that I have been going back and forth with lately.

Earlier this month, in New York, I came upon a lot of older wine. A sommelier friend handed me a sip of 1961 Franco Fiorina Barolo. “Here, try this,” she said as she scurried with a decanter to an important table. I took a small and a sip, the wine was light in color, still lively, but muted, not as bright as it might once have been?

So many of us in the wine business, we seek out the old and classic wines. When one is young, older wines seem to have this forbidden attraction. Imagine drinking a wine made before you were born; drinking it now, the people who handled the grapes, made the wine, even sold the wine, are all probably dead. Isn’t a bit of a vicarious thrill to touch something from the past, to be moved by someone’s labor, that person who no longer treads the earth? And all along, the remaining ones, we the living, are basking up the glory, because we are still standing. Still here. Still alive. But are those wines really still here? Still alive? Or is this just a little bit of eno-necrophilia we all are engaging in when we drink something so very, very old?

The story I tell about one of the epiphanies in wine I had drinking a 1964 Monfortino, still alleged to be a classic wine. When I drank that wine, though, it was only 17 years old. That would be like drinking a 1998 today. 1998, that’s not so very old, is it? So what was the big deal?

In my case, it was something I had never had, and in all likelihood, would not be having on a regular basis in my lifetime. And that is pretty well much how it has played out.

This circuitous route I am taking, all to express the thought that some of these old wines, when they were made, weren’t made as well as their modern day predecessors are being made. But by virtue of their being old, they get instant cult status among the young (Odd, that older people don’t get quite the same treatment as their vinous counterparts by some of the newer wine drinkers).

The interview I referenced in the last post, the one that Levi Dalton did with Antonio Galloni, Galloni had a few things to say, which I want to share with those of you who didn’t take the time to listen to the whole podcast, which you should.

"We did a 2008 Barolo dinner at Bar Boulud a couple of months back and I was talking about this with Mike Madrigal the other night how incredibly beautiful the wines were. Are they gonna be better in 10 years or 20 years? God, I hope so. Yes, I think that they will. But is it a crime to open 12 or 14 ’08 Barolos and taste them? Absolutely not. The wines are delicious today...They’re nowhere near as monstrously tannic as they were a generation ago.

So what’s changed is that the more traditional wines have become obviously, much more popular. But more than that, there’s really been a convergence of style in a big way because if you go look at Cascina Francia today, I can guarantee you that that vineyard is not being farmed the way Roberto Conterno’s father farmed it. There’s a lot of dropped fruit. The yields are really low. This is a modern vineyard. It’s a modern vineyard. You can say whatever you want. The only thing that’s traditional about this wine is that it’s got… It spends a lot of time in barrels, has long fermentation and it’s very basically, minimally handled, but this is not a traditional wine in the sense of the oxidated wines that my dad liked to drink 30 years ago.

So the massive convergence of style, the traditionalists have backed off, they’ve cleaned up the cellar and made more effort to have hygiene, and switched out old barrels, bought better destemming equipment. I think this is one of the big issues with Nebbiolos that Nebbiolo has a very fragile jack that doesn’t always separate from the skin. And if you don’t have full phenolic ripeness, you end up with jacks in your tanks.

So you can assume that in an era where… Let’s take about, look at what the ’70s… ’60s and ’70s, where you had cooler vintages, lower levels of ripeness, probably not the best equipment. Even if you destemmed, you’re probably getting some percentage of stems, or jacks or stuff in your tank, and that was in the wine. Today, people are more attentive. So, wines are cleaner. They’re more polished, and then of course, the weather has changed dramatically. It’s much drier, warmer, most of the time. So the weather has played a big role in how these wines have changed, but the wines of today are very different from the wines of 30 years ago. There’s nothing you can do about that. But basically, since I’ve been going there, there’s a big stylistic shift, a big stylistic conversion, which I think is generally good because the idea of modernist versus traditionalist was something that I never really found particularly exciting, where you see the big jump in quality which is great."

The takeaway is this: You can search for and fight over the older bottles of wine, Barolo, in this case, and Instagram them and post to labels to Delectable and have a good time showing off to your friends. We all love a good show. But in the rush to find the next bottle of 1952 Capellanno Barolo know this: you are only going back in time. And time has changed that wine, as it has changed you. Nothing is static; we live in a dynamic sluice of protons and matter. And if what Galloni is saying is true, and I believe it is, you might be doing yourself and the producers of Barolo (and Barbaresco) a disservice in your search for a Holy Grail wine experience by seeking out only the old wines. In the meantime, all these newer wines are available, and have had this quantum leap of quality in the last generation, and can be had (up to now) for relatively good prices. My money is on the new stuff. But isn’t that just like life? Young people want old wine and older people want younger wine. We all want what we can’t get. Except, we all get old. Even the younger ones out there who have been young all their life and no nothing else. My mom, who will turn 101 in four months, told me the other day, “When I was young, up until I was in my 30’s, I thought I was always going to be young. Because I had always been young. But now, looking back, I realize I have been older a hell of a lot longer in my life than I was young.”

Maintaining balance when choosing wines also applies to the age of the wines. I’m not saying to turn your back on old wines (or old people), but to keep an open mind to the experiences some of the young vintages can offer up. Just as the young generation of wine professionals coming up have a lot to offer in their fresh perspective, so do younger wines.

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