Note: the below post was a guest blog I wrote for Morrell & Company Wines
Wine gets better with age. Everyone knows that, right? I mean, growing up the only bottles I ever saw were Manischewitz and — later — Boone’s, yet somehow I feel like I’ve known this since the day I was born.
If you’re at least somewhat into wine, you probably know that this isn’t necessarily true, and that the vast majority of wine is meant to be drunk within a year. It is often only the top bottles — 1% or so — that age well. These are the bottles that sommeliers and other oenophiles love to drink and to rhapsodize about.
But, what does it mean for a wine to “get better”? This is something I’ve wondered for a long time. And while there is certainly no shortage of information available on this topic, what I really wanted to find out is if I like older wines. I’ve read plenty of tasting notes, but what do these storied cuvees actually taste like?
For me, part of the allure of an older bottle is actually possessing it for years, so that when you finally open it, you can ponder the things that have occured to you over all that time. Therefore, the idea of simply purchasing older vintages never really appealed to me. So, about 7 years ago I started collecting a few bottles, deciding to educate myself on what I like over the span of years. However, I’ve been growing anxious waiting for these gems to mature and have begun to buy older ones for special occasions. It was with this in mind that I decided to have a few friends over to explore the topic of age.
For this dinner I invited a group of people whose appreciation for wine ran the full spectrum. While a couple of us have developed quite an affinity for it, another, for example, only takes it on the rocks (I will keep her anonymous to spare her embarrassment). It was a group of friends I’ve known since I was 8 years old, Jesse, Matt, and Shahr, as well as our wives and kids (my wife is the one who needs ice).
Just as with any type of relationship that lasts over three decades, food has played a role in our friendship. These experiences range from the comical: as teenagers, Shahr and I almost came to blows over who was more passionate about hot wings; to the cultural: I remember introducing a 16-year-old Matt to Halva, a middleastern sweet that I grew up with. Jesse and I shared a more transformative culinary experience, but more about that later.
Throughout the evening, we would explore both white and red wine. For the former, I chose a Vouvray, from France’s Loire Valley. For the Red, I went with Morgon, a Cru Beaujolais. I had the current release of both of these wines, a 2009 version of the Morgon, as well as bottles of each from the 1995 vintage. This was particularly meaningful, as my friends and I had graduated high school together that very same year.
Do I Like Aged Wine?
Until this point, I only had three real experiences with aged wine. The first was when I was 21 and my friends and I raided my buddy’s parents’ attic at 3 AM for a case of cheap Pinot Grigio they were given for their wedding 23 years earlier. It had been stored in the worst possible conditions and was, quite frankly, disgusting. I think we drank it anyway. There was also the 1996 Bruno Clair Chambolle Musigny I had at The Modern in NY a couple years ago. I’ve frequently read that some older wines take on mushroom-like qualities, but this was almost like a mushroom consomme. While that was interesting and I enjoyed the experience, I like my wine to have some semblance of fruit. Maybe, I thought, aged wine just wasn’t for me.
My most recent foray, however, gave me hope. I opened a 2008 Muga Rioja I’d been saving for several years, and found it amazing how soft, supple, and elegant the wine had become. I remember having the same wine upon release and thinking it was too tight and energetic. Maybe I like wines with some age, I thought, just not decades. We would soon find out.
My Friends Arrive
As the 7 of us gathered in my living room on a particularly cold November night, I handed out cacio e pepe churros, a savory play on the amusement park classic, along with Champagne that my buddy brought. While the kids quickly began to methodically tear our apartment apart, we sat down for our first proper course and began our adventure of exploring age in wine.
First up was the Vouvray. I was surprised as how finessed this young wine was. It had tropical overtones, which is something I typically do not look for in white wine, but it wasn’t over-the-top. Similarly, it somehow managed to invoke honey without feeling sweet. This is a superb wine that worked perfectly with our first course: oyster with passionfruit leche de tigre, burnt garlic, cucumber, and shiso —a signature dish at the venerable Los Angeles restaurant Nightshade. It complimented the next course well, too: the L’Arpege Egg, a classic dish by French chef Alan Passard.
Then it was on to the 1995 — the year we all left home to begin the long, arduous journey to adulthood. I grew a lot that year in many aspects of my life, and one of those concerned food. I had been an extremely picky eater my whole life. Hamburgers were one of the few foods I would eat, and even then it was only plain — not even a bun — with a ton of pickles. That summer, my buddy Jesse and I were traveling the country and stopped for lunch at a famous burger joint on the side of a road. He ordered their specialty: a burger with the works. I stared at it incredulously. How, I asked, could he eat all that…stuff? He responded, very articulately I must say, that all of these components together achieved balance. The tomato brought acidity, the onion a hint of spice, and the lettuce texture. It was such a compelling argument that I took a bite. The rest is history.
A friend who was concerned with her child’s eating habits, once asked when I stopped being such a picky eater and turned into someone who, for example, has enjoyed veal brains at a Paris bistro. It was her question that made me recall the above story, and I was able to confidently say that the catalyst was Burger King.
The lobster that accompanied this 25 year old Vouvray was a far cry from the Whopper I had that afternoon. The dish — a Kristen Kish recipe — consisted of barely cooked lobster tail with a brioche sauce that somehow tastes just like a toasted buttered bun. I had expected this wine to have been significantly affected by time, but, in actuality, it still felt quite young. It had shed most of that tropical sensibility, but it was still vaguely there. It had become less Beach Boys and more Bob Marley. This was a well made wine, and it would be interesting to see what this vintage is like in another 10 years.
Onto the Red
We then moved over to the 2016 Morgon. This was clearly a young wine. Bright and sassy with lots of ripe fruit, it felt a bit clumsy. However, it was obvious this was a solid wine that would just get better and better over time. If the Vouvrays were the Beach Boys and Bob Marley, this would have to be Nirvana’s All Apologies from the album In Utero: pretty and melodic, but distorted and rough around the edges. With this, we had thinly sliced, raw Wagyu beef served on a hot, aromatic sea salt brick with bearnaise vinaigrette, a recipe by Marc Forgione. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was when Matt’s 11-year-old son tried and loved it. 26 years ago Matt had Halvah for the first time with me, and now I was introducing his son to beef carpaccio. Pretty cool.
With the 2009 vintage of this wine, we had a deconstructed French onion soup by another Los Angeles-based chef, Dominique Crenn. It was perfect bistro flavors to go with a fantastic bistro wine. At 10 years of age, the wine had shed some of its baby fat, but hadn’t yet developed any of those earthy flavors typically associated with older red wine.
For the 1995, we went with one of my favorite Eleven Madison Park recipes: 100-day dry aged beef with eggplant and beef ju. While Beaujolais aren’t known to age well, Morgon can be an exception. But, 25 years is a long time for any wine, and there was a possibility that this was over-the-hill. So, It was particularly rewarding to see that was not only still alive, but delicious.
Around the table, most of us agreed we preferred the aged wines — although none truly of them felt that old. As we ate dessert, coming full circle with the cinnamon-sugar Churros of our youth, Nirvana’s All Apologies began to play. But this wasn’t the studio version. It was Unplugged, which hit the charts in, you guessed it, 1995. It was the same band as in the studio version, with the same chords and lyrics, but somehow this acoustic version was completely different. It was now delicate, austere, and, at the end of the day, better. Just like the wine, and maybe — in a way — just like us. 1995 was a good year.