A Tribute to Wineries that Sell Mature Wines

 British couple sitting on high stools at ice bar outdoors at Grand Hotel St. Moritz . (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

British couple sitting on high stools at ice bar outdoors at Grand Hotel St. Moritz . (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Over Christmas break, after not skiing for fifteen years, we ventured to northern Vermont to a small family mountain to see if we still liked the sport. We obeyed all the rites and rituals of such trips: luggage, equipment, provisions and gifts filled our car so that our rear vision was blocked, and if you opened a door too quickly a bag or a child might come tumbling out.

With plenty of fresh powder and not-too-frigid temperatures, we rediscovered that skiing is a great way to spend a winter day outdoors. But the food on the mountain was strictly from hunger. To call it institutional would be an insult to some of the fine food now being served at schools. Within twenty-four hours, we vowed to take all our meals in the condo.

Which brings me to lunch on the second day in Vermont, the spread of charcuterie and artisanal cheeses our traveling companions had brought from Connecticut and the magnum of 2001 Domaine Savoye Morgon we’d found a few months earlier on the shelf of our neighborhood wine store, Flatiron Wines.

You can eat with a certain kind of abandon after a day of skiing. As we sat at the dining table surrounded by mountain views, reaching our knives across one another for a slice of country pâté or aged cheddar, and refilling our glasses from a seemingly endless bottle tasting of dark berries and anisette, we may as well have been in St. Moritz.  The improvised lunch is among my favorite meals of 2016. The lusty deliciousness of the charcuterie was elevated by the Morgon, not because it was an important bottle in the classic sense, but because it was a beautiful example of its type that had reached full maturity. Of the ten Cru Beaujolais appellations, the wines of Morgon are the most structured and long lived and the granite soils of the Côte du Py, where the Savoye family has been tending vineyards since the eighteen fifties, yield the appellation’s most complex offerings.

The bottle must have come from a private collection, because fifteen-year-old magnums of Savoye are not often spotted on a shop’s bottom shelf. They are the kind of wine you might find rummaging around the cellar of a friend with good taste, ample storage and a healthy dose of restraint. I’ve purchased the current vintage as a grab-and-go wine more than a dozen times, but until that lunch I had not known its potential for depth and elegance, the touch of truffle and fine drying tannins in a rich wine that was still lively enough to be refreshing. The bonus was that with only 12.5 percent alcohol, the wine eased, instead of kicked, us into après-ski naps. 

When I think about building a personal collection, these are the kind of bottles I covet. Affordable wines of exceptional quality, the result of rigorous and ethical viticulture, which are too humble for the auction circuit, yet often take on remarkable depth, complexity and charm with bottle age. The effects of time on these wines are profound. It’s akin to the difference between listening to an accomplished vocalist site read and hearing a performance of a song they’ve sung forever. You don’t need musical expertise to notice the smoothed edges, increased fluidity and more nuanced presentation.

Until this fantasy collection bears fruit, I’m grateful for the handful of exacting wineries that make a point of not releasing their wines until they are showing maturity. There is a great distinction between this and manipulating wines with an eye toward engineering approachability in their youth. This is the application of patience, vision, and financial resources to ensure wines have the opportunity to evolve. 

 Summer: Fog fills the Napa Valley, and warms in the morning sun, rising into the Cain Vineyard.  The winery  reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest.. (Platinum Print Copyright © 2010 Olaf Beckmann)

Summer: Fog fills the Napa Valley, and warms in the morning sun, rising into the Cain Vineyard.  The winery  reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest.. (Platinum Print Copyright © 2010 Olaf Beckmann)

The Rioja producer, R. Lopez de Heredia, holds their red and white reservas in barrel for six years and then in bottle for another decade before releasing them to market at a stage of development they identify as reminiscent of “gentlemen who have nobly grown old, while still maintaining some of their youthful characteristics.”

The northern Piedmont producer Vallana works according to the same principle. Their Gattinara sees two years in barrel and then another eight years in bottle before it is available for purchase. I marvel at this wine every time I open a bottle. What a pleasure it is to find mature traditional nebbiolo for less than thirty dollars.

Christopher Howell, the winemaker at Cain, the Napa winery on the crest of Spring Mountain known for its Bordeaux-style blends, recalls having a conversation about the benefits of bottle aging with Cain’s owner, Jim Meadlock. Afterwards, Jim queried, “If these wines develop with age and evolve slowly, why are you willing to release them too soon? Why don’t you hold some so people can experience what they’re like with time?” The winery now reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest to select shops and restaurants. The wines are also available directly from the winery. 

Of course, in Champagne, aged wine is an integral part of the culture. Reserve wines, wines from previous years, ensure consistency in house blends. The Champagne house Henriot took this practice to an extreme with its limited edition Cuve 38, a Champagne in which the base wine is an ever evolving blend of Grand Cru chardonnay from the Côtes des Blancs dating back to 1990. Vintage Champagnes, declared after an outstanding growing season, rest in the cellar on their lees for at least three years and usually far longer. For example, the Charles Heisieck 2005 Brut Millésime is just now being released. It is this extended time in contact with the sediment from the second in-bottle fermentation that gives all Champagne its rich and savory character.

Thinking about the transformative power of time, I grew fixed on the image of finely sliced onions warming over a low flame, slowly evolving from something sharp and tart into the rich confiture atop a Provencal pissaladière, as in the recipe below. Over the course of an hour, you can see the changes in the onion’s texture, smell the evolution of its sugars, and taste how these elements come together. The trick is not to rush the process, to resist raising the flame and browning the onions, or adding sugar to bring sweetness to the onions faster than slow cooking permits. The dish rewards patience. As the pissaladière's shortbread crust crisps in the oven, it begs to be served with a glass of the beguiling 2004 R. Lopez de Heredia Rioja Blanca Reserva, which to our good fortune is the current release and can be had by walking to the wine store while the tart cools.


10 Wines with Bottle Age


Pissaladière, Provencal Onion Tart

Serves 6

This recipe is adapted from Lulu’s Provencal Table, by Richard Olney. Instead of using whole anchovies as the original recipe suggests, here they are finely chopped and cooked in olive oil, then drizzled over the onion mixture.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • Salt
  • 10 tablespoons cold butter, diced
  • About 4 tablespoons of cold water
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 pounds of sweet onions, finely sliced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 8 anchovy fillets, chopped fine
  • ½ cup (2 ounces) niçois olives

Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl, add the diced butter, and crumble the flour and butter together, lightly and rapidly, picking up portions and rubbing loosely between thumb and fingertips. Above all don’t overwork the pastry. Gather it together with a fork and a little cold water, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling it out.

Warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large earthenware poêlon or heavy sauté pan, add the onions and salt and cook, covered, over very low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for an hour or more, or until they are so soft as to form a semi-purée.  Remove the lid and continue to cook until much of the liquid has evaporated; the onions should remain absolutely uncolored. Season with pepper.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium sauté pan over low heat. Add the chopped anchovies and cook, stirring occasionally until they dissolve into the oil. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  With the palm of your hand, flatten the ball of pastry on a generously floured marble slab or other work surface, sprinkle over plenty of flour over the ball, and roll to a thickness of approximately 1/8 inch. Roll it up onto a rolling pin and unroll it onto a large baking sheet. Fold up the edges and crimp them, either with your thumb dipped repeatedly in flour, or with the tines of a fork. 

Spread the onion puree evenly over the pasty.  Press the olives into the purée, spacing them equally. Dribble the anchovy oil over the surface and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edges of the pastry are golden and crisp.  Serve hot or tepid, cut into small wedges or squares with an aperitif, or in large wedges as the first course.