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You Be the Judge!

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The Pleasure of Aged Wines

On Saturday, we had some friends over for dinner. They like wine. One had fond memories of drinking Chateau Talbot when he was younger--it was his first introduction to fine wine. So this spring, when I saw a bottle of 1983 Talbot in the Heart's Delight auction, I bought it with the idea of sharing it with him.

I knew when I bought it that there was risk. 1983 was a solid vintage--but not one of the "immortal" ones. The wine might be well past its prime. And the money might have been wasted...I might have to pour it down the drain. But I thought it was worth the chance to provide a special moment for a friend.

I did a little research before dinner. It wasn't encouraging. Websites like suggested that the wine was "old." According to Mr. Parker, I was four or five years late in opening the bottle. But I also knew that wines have some bottle variation--and the older the wines get, the greater the bottle variation can be.

I did have a backup plan. My intent was to serve the Talbot and a 2003 Chateau Pontet-Canet with grilled tenderloin. Because 2003 was such a warm vintage, the '03s are generally at maturity already. But just in case one or both were flawed or over the hill, I brought up a slightly younger bottle as a "spare."

With a wine as mature as the Talbot, I planned to open it just before serving, decant for sediment...and serve. And I did. I knew the cork would be fragile--and it was. But--with a combination of several openers (particularly the one that surrounds the cork, instead of penetrating it, known as "Ah So")--I was able to get the cork out. After I poured it into the decanter, I sniffed it hopefully.

My face fell. I smelled nothing but barnyard funk. I should have known. Who was I to serve a wine Mr. Parker had said is "old"? The Pontet-Canet, on the other hand, smelled just lovely. So all was not lost. I planned to pour the '83 Talbot for a ceremonial taste...then dump it out and open a 2005.

A funny thing happened on my way to dumping the 1983! We tasted it. Our initial reaction? Not bad. Not bad at all. Maybe we won't pour it out. A bite of tenderloin. Actually, this Talbot is pretty interesting. Another bite. You know, I really like this.

The fruit certainly had faded some. The earthy, mushroomy tertiary flavors from bottle age were noticeable. But this wine had real character. We drank every drop--and around the table, the glasses of Talbot were empty before the glasses of the very good Pontet-Canet.

Interesting, huh? Point is, experts--whether producers or critics--can only provide estimates on the life of a wine. Those projections are generally made when the wines are relatively young--years, perhaps decades, before the wine reaches maturity. Do not/do not/do not disregard a wine just because long ago someone has projected that it might now be over the hill. If you do, you may be needlessly tossing away a memorable wine experience.

What you should do is be realistic. Some older bottles will indeed be over the hill. You need to be prepared to taste, smile...shrug...and pour it out if it disappoints you. Have a backup plan. That backup plan might be several bottles of that older wine--because there is enough bottle variation with older wines that one might be bad and another, from the same case, excellent. Or it might be a younger wine. But by exploring your mature wines you'll find some--like our 1983 Talbot-- that will make you sit back and smile. And that experience makes it all worthwhile! Just because someone else thinks your wine is too old, doesn't mean it is. You be the judge.

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