We had a wonderful time at the Greater Goods tasting this past weekend, met lots of nice people, and got to talk at great length about wine, which is always fun (fun for us, anyway – and we hope too many people didn’t leave with their eyes glazed over!) We also discovered that one of the reds we poured, the 2006 Cave TerraVentoux La Font Nouvelle, was even better than we remembered it. Less tannic, more ripe fruit flavors, and a nice earthy finish. And the 2004 Château de Clapier Cuvée Soprano had acquired what we might, in overblown wine language, describe as a stately richness. Really gorgeous. Granted, with a large portfolio it’s hard to remember the exact flavor of every single wine (we don’t have the Robert Parker Wine Memory Chip Implant [TM], after all ;-)), but we know these are different, and better, than they were last year. It got us thinking about how wine ages in the bottle and how long it will be drinkable.
We’ve all been told that with wine, the older the better, at least for reds. But how old, and how much better? And even if that was once true, is it still true today? Gourmet Magazine recently published a retrospective of wine writing, and it’s fun (again, fun for us, anyway) to go through and read the rhapsodic descriptions of opening dusty, decades-old bottles that were not only still good, but magnificent, nay, even transcendent, life-changing, touch-the-face-of-the-deity experiences. (Romance novelists have nothing on wine writers when it comes to purple prose.) These wines, almost exclusively French, were made from the highest quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and sometimes Syrah, grapes with lots of tannins and shockingly intense fruit flavors that were practically undrinkable at first, and so had to age. The cork lets in a small amount of air, and over time the oxygen in the air reacts with many of the compounds found in the wine to make a lusher, softer, more complex amalgam of flavors and textures. These wines were also made in an era when life in general went at a slower pace. Winemakers made everyday wine to drink for sure, but there was also the expectation that you would store wine for the future, and so many wines were made for that purpose.
Life is different these days, and we either don’t have the room or the inclination to store wines; we want them to be ready to drink when we buy them. And winemakers are responding to that demand. The vast majority of wines are ready to drink when they’re released by the winemakers, whether it’s from changing the proportions of different grapes, the winemaking techniques, or the amount of time they’re aged at the winery before release. This is true even of wines that weren’t meant to be aged by customers for a decade or more.
(Wines meant to be aged before opening are a different thing altogether. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some really fine Bordeaux from the early 1990s that has been properly stored, or a Barolo from the mid-1990s, you’re not only getting a bit of history but a fabulous experience, purple prose aside. Whether you think it’s worth the price, assuming you don’t get treated to the wine by someone else, is an individual choice. But we think everyone ought to have that opportunity at least a few times in their lives.)
The taste of nearly every wine will change as it sits unopened in the bottle. Eventually, they all become either flat and uninteresting, oxidized (smells and tastes like sherry), or spoiled (turns to vinegar). Before that, though, it can get better, in the sense of flavor, richness, and smoothness. Wines that are more intense to start with usually fare better than lighter-bodied wines, going through a longer transition and a more gradual decline. This is due mostly to the tannins in the grape skins, which mellow out with age and allow other flavors to come through (although some of those other flavor components also change with age). A few rules of thumb for red wines that are considered ready to drink on release: Light-bodied reds other than those like Beaujolais Nouveaux (which is meant to be opened right away) will probably have three years from their release before they become significantly less interesting. Medium-bodied reds can have a five-year run, and heartier reds eight years or so. The rules can change depending on the year the grapes were grown, but not by a lot. For first vine reds from the Southern Rhône Valley, there are a couple of things at work. The higher the percentage of Syrah vs. Grenache, the longer the wine will keep. The exception to this is the cru wines from Vacqueras, Gigondas, and some from Vinsobres – although relatively low in Syrah and high in Grenache, the tannins are intense and the earthy, leathery, almost animalistic qualities keep the wines going for longer. (Animalistic…hmmm…maybe we’re not immune from purple prose ourselves…)
White wines age differently from reds and don’t have nearly as long a shelf life. The first things to go are some of the more subtle flavors and then the acidity. Since the acidity is what gives the wine its liveliness, when that goes the wine seems really dull. (Not that you can’t use them for something – if you’re mixing them in a drink that has lemon or lime juice they can still serve a purpose. We’re sure that many a white sangria has disguised a past-due bottle of white wine. And don’t forget spritzers. Or wait, maybe you should!) It’s worse for white wines aged in oak before bottling. Once the acidity is gone, it really can seem as if you’re chewing a piece of wood. Of course, there are fine white wines meant to be aged. Our 2005 Domaine de Montvac Vacqueras White, for example, has become richer in flavor than the 2007 while retaining its acidity and still isn’t overwhelmed by oak. The 2007 has a more floral quality to it and seems a bit more summer-y, but the 2005 is drinking lush these days. Even everyday whites can gain an agreeable maturity of flavor in the bottle, whether intended or not. Still, you’re going to want to keep most whites three years maxiumum.
Rosés are a wonder in many ways, none more so than as they age a little in the bottle. Some people say they won’t drink any but the latest release of rosé (this year’s will be 2008), but many from one or two seasons back are nothing to sneeze at. They will lose some of the more evanescent fruit flavors (strawberry is one of the first to go), but because they’re made with red wine grapes and so have a small amount of tannins, they’re a little insulated from decline and can become slightly more substantial, we think in a good way. That’s a matter of taste, but we’ll reach for a 2007 any day, and not just because we’ll have to until our 2008s come in!
So what’s our advice? Don’t keep those bottles too long, but don’t drink all of them too soon. You don’t want them to fade and yet you should also experience some of the change that can come with age for fuller-bodied wines. It might seem like a sort of expensive experiment. But we prefer to think of it as Goldilocks with a much better ending. After all, she only had porridge!
In honor of the Kentucky Derby this weekend, we thought we’d share a recipe for a Derby classic – Hot Brown Sandwiches. They originated in the Brown Hotel in Louisville in the early 20th century and are easy in concept – open faced turkey and bacon over toast topped with a thickened milk, egg yolk, and cheese sauce, baked or broiled until brown. Nothing to it, right? Except that the “traditional” sandwiches are about a bazillion calories each, the cheese sauce can be gluey and tasteless, and by the time they’re cool enough to eat, they don’t look too appetizing anymore. Usually we’ve had a few mint juleps by then, and don’t necessarily care, but Hot Browns can be really good even when you’re sober. (And a whole lot safer to make then, too). We’ve got a nice sauce with a bit of zip to it, and a shrimp and tomato variation without bacon we developed for friends who only eat seafood and don’t view bacon as a condiment the way we do. They’re still not diet food, but you won’t have to run the race yourself if you eat them. We like thicker-sliced turkey rather than sandwich-style slices, and thick-sliced, peppery bacon. We also like them on rye, but some people prefer thick slices of country bread.
Mint juleps are traditional, so if you’re having those, use really good bourbon and fresh mint. A friend of ours taught us to make the mint sugar syrup by muddling lots of mint with superfine (not powdered) sugar and adding an equal volume to the sugar of filtered, cold water, and then letting the syrup steep in the fridge overnight before straining the mint out. Try making it that way once and you’ll never go back to heating the syrup again. We also like to serve the 2007 Cave la Romaine Rosé, made from Grenache and Syrah, or the Majnoni Guicciardini 2006 Chianti, made from 100% Sangiovese. Both taste great, and add a nice international touch while you watch the race. We’ll raise a glass and hope you picked a winner!
Hot Brown Sandwiches
Makes 6 sandwiches
6 slices rye bread
1 clove garlic, peeled and cut in half
3 cups milk, heated to warm
4 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
One half teaspoon salt
One half teaspoon to three-quarters teaspoon dry mustard powder, or one and a quarter teaspoons prepared Dijon-style mustard
One quarter teaspoon hot sauce (more if you’d like)
One cup grated Swiss cheese
One-third cup grated Parmesan cheese
For turkey/bacon version: 6 thick slices turkey meat, or enough to cover the six slices of bread with a good layer if you’re using deli meat; 6 to 9 slices bacon, fried until brown and crisp, drained and crumbled
For shrimp version: 24 large shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cooked (see note below), then cut into large pieces; 1 large tomato, finely diced
Toast the bread. While it’s still warm, rub one side of each slice with the cut side of the garlic. Set aside. To make the sauce, stir a half teaspoon of the mustard powder and the salt into the flour. Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan, then add the flour/mustard/salt, and whisk over low heat for at least two minutes, to cook the flour without browning it. Add the warm milk and keep whisking, turn the heat up to medium-high and cook until the mixture thickens. Add the hot sauce, then the Dijon if you’re using that instead of mustard powder, then the cheese and whisk until melted. Taste for mustard – if you want more, dissolve the remaining quarter teaspoon of mustard powder in a teaspoon of water and whisk it into the sauce, or add a little more Dijon. Taste for heat and salt and add a little more of either if you like, it shouldn’t be too salty if you’re using the bacon, but can be a little saltier for the shrimp version.
If your broiler is large enough to sit over six slices of bread, adjust the oven rack to about six inches below the broiler, then preheat the broiler. If not, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Place the bread slices, garlic side up, on a baking sheet. For the turkey version, put a dab of sauce on each slice of bread to anchor the turkey, divide the turkey among the bread slices, then top with most of the bacon. Spoon the sauce over to cover the entire surface of each slice and sprinkle the top with the remaining bacon. For the shrimp version, divide the shrimp and tomato on top of the bread slices, top with sauce.
Broil for a few minutes, watching carefully, until browned and bubbly. If you’re baking them, it may take up to 10 minutes, but keep watching. Let the sandwiches cool for a couple of minutes, then serve.
Note: If you have frozen shrimp that are peeled, deveined, and cooked, just thaw them in cold water, dry them off, then cut them up. To cook the shrimp yourself, bring 4 cups of water to a boil, juice half a lemon and put the juice and the lemon rind in the water with a teaspoon of salt and a quarter-teaspoon of chili powder. Add the thawed shrimp and cover, bring back to a simmer then turn off the heat. Using the lid of the pot as a strainer, pour off the liquid, then cover the pot and let the shrimp sit steaming themselves for 10 minutes.