It’s happened to all of us. You end up with a really special bottle of wine. So you wait for that perfect time to open it. The day finally arrives (hopefully), when all your stars seem to be in perfect alignment. So you proceed with the opening ceremony. You cut the foil, insert the worm into the cork, twist, pull, pour, and…
Well it doesn’t taste how you imagined it. Or how you remembered. Or maybe it just needs a few moments to breathe and so you wait and then try it again. But no. It has changed. Or you have changed. Or something has changed.
Is it the glass? The atmospheric pressure? Your mood? Did you get a bad bottle? Did it not age as it was supposed to? Had your taste buds been tainted by other wines the day you picked it out? Is it past its prime? Not yet reached its peak?
Well I’m not going to tell you I know. But that is my point. I don’t know what might have changed in the wine or in us (besides the obvious). But that is part of the mystery of wine, and part of what makes wine intriguing and what makes us appreciate it. Time changes everything (and we can’t change time).
To me, wine appreciation is so much more than drinking wine that I like. So many variables factor in to make the entire process quite abstract. How abstract you choose to make it depends on how deeply you want to question it.
Lately I have been pondering the concepts that I actually have control over, when it comes to figuring out how to open good bottles—bottles of wine that I’ll actually like.
The first one, which is the most rudimentary, is having enough knowledge about a wine to make a good decision about when it should be opened.
If you’re the drink-it-now type, you’re still going to need to know not to buy that “California” Chardonnay on sale for $3.99 with a vintage ten years older than today’s date. That was a discount wine to begin with and it certainly will not have aged gracefully. If you’ve got a collection of thousands of bottles, you are most definitely going to have to keep up with what’s what and what the latest vintage news are. Otherwise that fancy cellar of your isn’t going to be anything but a decorative wine bottle grave yard.
But even if you understand vintages and values, you still won’t always turn up with a successful bottle of wine. On the contrary, if you don’t understand much, you are likely to end up with a few winners here and there. That is part of the mystery.
Second, you are going to need to have a way of determining whether, if you don’t like a wine, it is just you, or a fault in the wine.
Sometimes this is easy. You just finished off a slice of chocolate cake. Of course a ten year old red Burgundy is going to taste sour. Or your newly uncorked Lodi Zinfandel tastes a little too much like tequila on your tongue. Chances are the alcohol is too high.
But sometimes it is not so easy to figure out what is going on. Your beloved Sierra Foothilla Barbera is lacking all fruit (not likely). Or your three year old stainless-steel-aged Dogliani Dolcetto tastes like it has a brettanomyces problem (not that common). My solution in cases like these (both happened to me a couple weeks ago) is to get a second opinion. Or I’ll keep opening bottles until I find one I like. If I get to three or four, I usually give up and decide it must be my taste buds that day. (Why? I don’t know. But acceptance is the first step.) Some people just switch to beer.
My last and most enchanting topic of wine appreciation is that of preserving memories. This one is tough because often a bottle of wine symbolizes something more than the wine itself. This is where the grey area exists between becoming a collector and being a hoarder. Perhaps a wine reminds you of a special trip you took with your girlfriends or it is a bottle that you and your husband picked out together and you’re saving it for a distant anniversary. The bottle acts as a souvenir or a time capsule with a story to tell. But if you hold on too long, the story will dissolve and when you finally do get around to opening the bottle, you’ll regret letting it go to waste.
I recently opened an eleven year old Barbaresco that I’d been saving for seven years. It symbolized a memorable day during one of my first Italy trips. On this particular day I had met one of my (now) very best Piemontese friends. He had spent a lot of time with me at this winery, explaining the Barbaresco territory. He gave me this particular bottle of wine on that day in appreciation of my quest for knowledge and respect for Piemontese wines in general. (I was just appreciative he took so much time out of his day to teach me about Barbaresco!)
The bottle wasn’t from a stellar vintage but he certainly had faith in it at that time, and I know my friend by now—he would never release a bad wine. On top of that, all of his Barbarescos need time in the cellar. So, with that knowledge, I waited those seven years. And finally last week, with this special eleven year old bottle in hand, I made my peace and decided that if I uncorked it, it would not mean losing the memory of my first forray into the wines of Barbaresco. It would just be me enjoying a fabulous bottle with friends.
My tasting group met last week to do a blind tasting of wines “from the stash.” That means each member picks a wine from their collection and brings it to share with the group. So I put my bottle of eleven year old Barbaresco in its paper bag and set it among the many other wines. Then, in the first flight, I noticed everyone was puckering over the third wine, saying there were too many tannins.
I smelled it and took a sip. It was mine! I knew it.
But it didn’t taste how I imagined it would taste. It was a little off-balance, tight, and the fruit wasn’t showing up. No one else was reacting how I wanted them to. So what had gone wrong? Even with all that I knew about the producer, vintage, and type of wine, it wasn’t how I’d expected it to be. And so, subject to the judgements of my scrupulous tasting group members, there that bottle went, the symbol of my discovery of the Barbaresco zone, half into the spitoon.
Feeling dejected, I set my glass aside and moved on with the rest of the group. But the next night, I pulled that rejected bottle out of the cabinet and gave it another swirl.
Overnight the wine had become a perfectly aromatic and delicately fruity, velveteen Barbaresco in my glass and it went perfectly with my grilled, grass-fed, New York steak.
I’m not going to claim I know exactly what changed in 24 hours that couldn’t have happened in 11 years, but one thing is for sure. My adventure with wine isn’t slowing down.