Assuming that you’ve had the financial ability, and the foresight, to hold back at least some of your favorite bottlings from several years ago in your own cellar, what has been your experience when you open them? How would you compare them in style and quality to the wines you’re making today? Any major changes worth noting? Any surprises? And what do you do typically do with these bottles, other than use them for educational purposes?
Nigel Greening, Felton Road Vineyard (Central Otago, New Zealand). In terms of what wines we have, the answer is simple: everything we’ve ever made. That is only about 170 wines so far. They are offered to charities (in mags or jeroboams), opened for critics, or significant visitors, and for our own technical tastings, but each time we do that we try to write a contemporary tasting note for our website cellaring guide. In theory, we open everything at least every two or three years, to try to keep the cellaring guide up to date.
What do we see? First and most important, we see just how impressive screwcaps are as a quality closure. We have been using them for 11 years now, and have about 25 different wines in our library stock which are available in cork and screwcap, all between 7 and 11 years old. When we open a blind pair of these, we’ll see one of two things: when we are lucky enough to have a “perfect” cork (about one in seven or eight), we’ll see the two wines as pretty much identical. Younger than that and a good cork can sometimes look better than a screwcap because the wine has peaked earlier. But for the vast majority of wines, the cork-closed wines are inferior to a varying degree, due to premature oxidation, with obviously the occasional TCA case.
Our older wines were from much younger vines, so they lack the structural depth we expect from the more recent bottlings. Vintage variation was also much greater in earlier years, largely due to young vines and viticultural inexperience. We also feel we’ve learned a lot in our viticulture (now biodynamic for six years) and much more hands-off winemaking, which will lead to a more transparent expression of place in our younger wines, so it can be a real struggle to decide whether to pull out a younger but better made wine, such as an ’07, as opposed to the more mature but less accomplished wines like the ’04s or ’01s. We now expect our current wines to show a similar aging pattern to average Burgundies, or maybe Oregon pinots–say at their peak at 10-12 years–but not to exhibit the aging of the great and more structured Burgundies.
Our current favorite drinks? (Barrel Fermented) Chardonnay and Block 2 Chardonnay 2001, and the 2004 pinots. The 2002 is also drinking very well but shows too much atypical vintage character: it’s a wine of the vintage, not the place.
Marc Beyer, Léon Beyer (Alsace, France). This is a question I’m happy to answer! My first response is that Alsace wines age wonderfully! As we are always trying to maintain the Beyer family style we are happy to see that this is the case. The style has been retained, but we could add that there have been many fewer so-called “poor vintages” over the last 20 years.
We use our collection for educational purposes as well as for communication at press tastings.
Chester Osborn, d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale, Australia). With 60 different wines in the portfolio, we have a lot of scope for a large museum and have been holding back, of our $20 wines, about 100 dozen of each for about eight years. Of the more expensive wines we hold up to a pallet of each and re-release them at eight to ten years of age, but we do keep considerable stock of wine back for another 10 to 30 years. However, in recent years we have been using a lot of wines from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s in dinners with media and trade and have depleted the stocks considerably. There are still up to a dozen or two of each in existence. We do show wines from other wineries now from the 1960s at these dinners and these have been going down great.
From the 1990s, export caused considerable demand and vineyards were boosted with fertilizers and irrigation more than in the past. Grapes were picked riper and less SO2 was used. This produced wines that were more forward and ready to go. The wines of today are made somewhat like the way we made wines and grapes in the 1940s: s with no cultivation, fertilizer, herbicides and irrigation. These wines are free of shrivel and have been made with higher SO2 levels, no racking, filtering or fining, and more careful topping of the barrels. They have better mineral tannins, better acidity and will age much more gracefully, more like the wines of the ’60s.
Jason Haas, Tablas Creek Vineyard (Paso Robles, California). We’ve been keeping a library of our wines since our second vintage: we realized too late with the 1997 vintage that we’d gone ahead and sold it all and didn’t keep some back. We’ve kept 5 cases of everything, 10 cases of anything ageable, and 20 cases of the Esprit de Beaucastel wines. Our idea was to use these wines for special occasions: dinners, seminars, vertical tastings with writers, etc., but not particularly to sell them. Then, starting with the 2003 vintage, we kept a larger library reserve of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc wines, enough to sell later, but without a clear idea of what we were going to do with them.
In 2009, we hit on an idea that we thought would be a good way to get the library wines out to people who were interested in them. We created a new tier to our wine club, called the “Collector’s Edition.” This tier received two bottles of a library Esprit de Beaucastel and a bottle of a library Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, as well as a slightly larger allocation of our current release of Esprit and Esprit Blanc. The initial 250 places that we opened up filled up in a few weeks, and we’ve been able to add to the rolls slightly each year. We just added members from our waiting list for this year, and are up to about 600 members. This has been a great way for people who have discovered Tablas Creek only recently, or those who didn’t have the storage or foresight to age what they bought years ago, to see how the wines have aged. The response has been extremely positive and I think has opened many people’s eyes to the fact that we are making wines that can go out a decade or more. Perhaps even more, it has emphasized how well our roussanne-based whites age, which many of our customers hadn’t contemplated.
Of course, we have other uses for these library wines. We do show them to writers, at dinners and in seminars. I showed the 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel just this past weekend at a symposium at the Central Coast Wine Classic, the only library wine in a lineup of 2009s, 2010s and 2011s. I’ve always thought that doing so makes an important point about Tablas Creek and helps us stand out. We’re releasing the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc this fall–in each case, our tenth vintage of our flagship wine. We’re planning a few small tastings of the complete vertical lineup around the country to celebrate. We believe that even the earliest vintages are youthful, though they have gained complexity as secondary flavors have developed.