Elly’s Cellar Series Part 2: My First Case
After 40 years in the business, even my boss acknowledges that you never really know what you’ll get when you pop that old cork. Kermit will come into a staff tasting casually carrying some 27 year-old grand cru red Burgundy, and when our expectations are peaking he’ll say with a grin, “Well, let’s hope it tastes OK.”
Figuring that there was a bit of irony in that grin, I did an informal survey of my co-workers’ cellaring methods hoping to uncover the secret. With note-pad in hand, I sidled up to the retail counter to pick Michael Butler’s brain. He’s worked at KLWM for 21 years.
“So Michael,” I said, “how do you decide which wines to lay down?”
“Well, first I look for balance,” he said. “And then for body and structure.” I dutifully wrote down ‘balance’ and ‘structure’ on my note-pad.
“Alright, and then what?”
Michael paused for a moment and I leaned forward expectantly, here was the golden key I had been waiting for!
“I pick wines that I like and that have aged well in the past,” he said. I waited for more, but nothing came.
“Ok… so, that’s what you do?” I finally said.
“That’s how I do it.”
“But how do you know how a young wine will mature?” I asked.
“You never really know,” he said. I wrote down ‘you never really know’ on my notepad.
Since I don’t have 20 years of experience, I’ll need to do a bit more research than Michael or Kermit. Of course, the beauty of starting a budget cellar is that I can, quite literally, afford to take a personal approach to my research. I can buy a wine and try it now before I put it away for some years. An added benefit is that I will be developing my palate at the same time. I guess the secret is pretty simple after all: you must taste many wines.
For example, a few years ago when I was working at KLWM part-time and had no idea what I was doing, my co-worker Clark pulled me into the office to taste a 2004 and a 2005 Gigondas from Les Pallières. The 2005 was universally heralded as an exceptional vintage, and I knew it. So I swirled and sniffed and tasted and spit and was embarrassed to admit that I liked the 2004 better. It had pretty fruit and its tannins were more supple. The 2005 had a lot of tannins and dark fruit and made my mouth feel dry.
What I didn’t know at the time was that those strong tannins (an important element of structure) will help the wine keep for a long time and will also soften in the future. The 2004 Gigondas was a good vintage to drink young, but the 2005, with its balance, robust body and structure, was built for aging. Lesson learned.
Intending to make good use of all my recently acquired knowledge, I chose the following five bottles to take home and taste:
2009 Côte de Brouilly · Château Thivin
($24 a bottle, sold out, back in stock mid-summer)
2008 Bourgueil “Vieilles Vignes” · Domaine de la Chanteleuserie
($17.95 a bottle, available)
2007 Nero d’Avola “Sciave” · Cantina Riofavara
($29 a bottle, sold out)
2007 Corbières rouge “Réserve La Demoiselle” · Domaine de Fontsainte
($16 a bottle, available)
2008 Gigondas “Les Racines” · Les Pallières
($36 a bottle, available)
I’d tasted most of these wines at least once before I took them home, so I had the benefit of already knowing that I liked them. However, during my selection process I also took care to follow the guiding principles I outlined in my “Why Start A Cellar?” post: First, I focused on affordable bottles, which should be evident from the prices. Second, I assured variety in my cellar by selecting wines from many different appelations and diverse cépages. Third, I chose interesting, terroir-driven wines from less well-known regions.
I opened all the wines and let them breath for a couple of hours before tasting. (I encourage you to try this process at home, but if you do, you might try spitting. Otherwise by the third wine everything starts tasting GREAT and your notes become sloppy and vague). Below are my impressions:
The 2009 Côte de Brouilly by Château Thivin tastes like the aftermath of a battle between two cherry armies. As I sipped, I imagined cherry soldiers dripping delicious juice from mortal wounds. Is there something about starting a cellar that inspires dramatic fantasies? The cherries didn’t perish in vain, however, for Thivin must have wrung the juice from dark earth, bottled it, and after about five years in my cellar I’m sure they will have a rebirth. This is a perfect example of a beautifully balanced cru Beaujolais with enough acid and tannins to age well.
The next wine I tasted, the 2008 Bourgueil “Vieilles Vignes” by Chanteleuserie, offered a classic Cabernet Franc profile of leather, earth, bright red fruit and dry tannins. The over 40-year-old vines lend a deepness to the wine, and according to a very reliable source, these wines can age! Dixon Brooke, recently had a 1976 (!) that was spectacular. I can’t wait to try a bottle in five, ten and 15 years.
Our only Sicilian wine in the shop, the Nero d’Avola, inspires poetic exclamations. I delicately stuck my nose in the glass and was instantly rewarded with an ethereal waft of Mediterranean ocean breeze and berries. The Nero d’Avola has a far-away romance to it and could probably age for 20 years.
The “Réserve La Demoiselle” from Domaine de Fontsainte is one of the best deals in the shop. From the Corbières region of the Languedoc, it is a blend of primarily Carignan (the vines were planted in 1904). Can this lovely, already velvety wine really be only $16 a bottle? Apparently so! This one is a no-brainer, and we also have the 2008 in magnums.
The 2008 “Les Racines” is the perfect example of a wine that would really benefit from five years in the cellar. All the elements are there: fruit, alcohol, tannins, and earthy, woodsy notes, and throughout the years these should integrate brilliantly. I opened a bottle at noon and tried it through the day. By 8pm the licorice spice and fruit had melded in the most beguiling way. I’m going to try to hang on to mine for at least 10 years.
So there you have it; I’ve chosen my first set of wines to cellar! I’m going to purchase three bottles of each wine (at least) so that I can try them throughout the years and monitor their maturation. Also, this will help protect me from heartbreak should a bottle be corked. Some day I will be buying entire cases!