Before I understood the complexities of the subject, I believed that all wines improved with age. So when someone gave me a very modest red Graves from a forgettable vintage, I resisted temptation and dragged it from apartment to apartment over a period of five nomadic years holding off until I had an occasion I thought momentous enough to open it. Lesson learned: the brick colored liquid I finally poured with such anticipation turned out to be vinegar. Its time had come and gone.
Of course, as I learned, only certain wines have aging potential, and despite what you may read, predicting which ones do and for how long is not a precise science. The concept of “peak drinkability” is inherently subjective because our palates all differ. Older isn’t always better. What’s the best time to drink a wine? That’s a matter of opinion and personal taste.
For some of us, there’s a special pleasure in experiencing a wine at its maturity, but if you haven’t acquired an appreciation for the secondary and tertiary flavors that evolve over time an older vintage wine will not be very satisfying. What tastes complex and remarkably delicious to me could well strike you as simply over “over the hill.” Some of this is personal, pertaining to our individual tasting experience, or simply our palate preferences (as is the case with food), and some of it is more broadly cultural. For instance, the traditional British palate tends to favor mature wine flavors, while the French typically appreciate more the bright freshness of comparatively younger wine. Americans have been somewhere in the middle.
What preserves a wine and allows it to develop in the bottle? An ability to resist oxidation. For red wines, this involves having a strong tannic structure and the slow absorption of oxygen during barrel aging; and for white wines, it means having formidable levels of acid. But there’s more to it. For a wine to have the potential to develop over time, it must also be intensely concentrated and saturated with an abundance of aromatic and flavor compounds.
The oldest wine I’ve ever had was from 1905. You can’t help but approach a century old wine with some measure of reverence. Far from what I would describe as delicious, the few sips I savored were still magical. The oldest “great wines” I’ve had were a 1927 Cockburn Port, a 1943 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (from a terrible vintage!) and a 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc. Words fail, but the sense memory of each lingers. There’s a special thrill we experience, beyond these sensory characteristics, when we commemorate an occasion by opening a bottle from a birth, or anniversary year.
I would love to be able to stock mature wines at Legal Sea Foods, but the economics don’t generally work out. The one major exception is our Park Square Wine Cellar in downtown Boston, where we have committed the resources (proper space and storage) to offer literally dozens of mature wines. We also have some terrific older bottles at our Legal Harborside 2nd floor dining room, including a half bottle of a Grand Cru Burgundy, the Hospices de Beaune 2000 Mazis-Chambertin, and a 1997 Rheingau Riesling Spatlese.
Riesling? When most of us visualize decades old wine we picture Bordeaux, Hermitage, Barolo or Napa Cabernet, all substantial red wines. What’s virtually unknown is how spectacularly certain white wines age. To illustrate this, we have a separate page on our Park Square wine list (see below) titled “Mature White Wines” listing entries dating to the 1990 vintage. These are all cool climate wines: from Burgundy, Germany, Alsace, the Loire Valley, New Zealand and coastal parts of California. What they share: high acidity from the climate, minerality from the rocky soils, and richly concentrated flavors. Overall, only a tiny percentage of the world’s wines share these origins or have this capacity. The statistics are still that consumers drink the vast majority of wine they purchase within 48 hours.
A well-aged Riesling, Chardonnay, or Chenin Blanc (or, for that matter, red wine) complements different food preparations than a youthful one. As a wine’s direct fruitiness and bold flavors moderate, the characteristics that evolve over time achieve a delicate subtlety. Strongly spicy or sweet dishes can easily overpower an older wine’s flavor balance. I tend to enjoy mature wines most with food featuring understated sauces and accompaniments. A favorite of mine is our Arctic Char with a delicate lemon butter sauce and a white wine with at least seven years of age. I encourage you to come to Park Square and try this combination.
Sandy Block, Master of Wine
Mature White Wines - Legal Sea Foods, Park Square Wine List
It’s a myth that white wines cannot age and develop in the bottle. Some of our most interesting wines in the Cellar are older vintage whites and to highlight the ones from several of our different geographic regions, we’ve compiled the following list. These wines are delicious with understated, more subtle fish preparations which play up the aromatic complexity and finesse of their flavors.
Kumeu River "Mate's Vineyard" Chardonnay, Kumeu, 2010
Stony Hill Vineyard Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2009
Hospices de Beaune "Cuvee Francois Poinsard Legal Sea Foods Selection" Pouilly-Fuisse, Burgundy, 1999
Louis Latour Meursault, Burgundy, 2010
Bouchard Meursault, Burgundy, 1990
Domaine Blain-Gagnard "La Boudriotte" Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru, Burgundy, 1998
Joseph Drouhin Marquis de Laguiche Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, 1999
Olivier Leflaive "Les Pucelles" Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru, Burgundy, 2000
Louis Latour "Les Demoiselles" Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru, Burgundy, 1999
Olivier Leflaive Batard-Montrachet, Burgundy, 2000
Hugel "Jubilee" Riesling, Alsace, 2007
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht "Clos Windsbuhl" Riesling, Alsace, 2006
J.J. Prum Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese, Mosel, 2004
Domaine Marcel Deiss "Mambourg" Blend, Alsace, 2000
(primarily Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir & Pinot Blanc with Chardonnay & Auxerrois)
Philippe Foreau "Clos Naudin" Vouvray Demi-Sec, Loire Valley, 2005
Domaine du Viking "Cuvee Aurelie" Vouvray, Loire Valley, 1996
Domaine de la Pepiere Chateau-Thebaud "Clos des Morines" Muscadet, Loire Valley, 2010