Would you like to drink $50 wines for only $10 a bottle? Of course you would — and you can, by thinking ahead in a way that will lead to a luxurious retirement.
Back in the misty old days when bowler hats bobbed through the British aristocracy, everyone (who was anyone) did just that. The mechanics were simple: A merchant in London selected and imported wines that would improve over time, and were then delivered with instructions to be aged or stored for a fee on behalf of the customer. If you’ve ever wondered why so many Portuguese wines (like Port) have British names (like Cockburn’s), the reason is the robust history of the British wine merchant.
But what about today? How do you find $10 wines that will metamorphose like caterpillars inside glass cocoons into $50 butterflies? Start by learning four magic words: highly tannic European reds.
Now let’s deconstruct that phrase. Tannin is a natural compound found in many plants, such as red wine grapes, tea plants and oak trees. Plants use tannin to guard against pests, and people use it as a preservative. It’s used to tan leather and age wines.
Why Reds Age Better
Red wines are traditionally aged in oak barrels because the tannin from the oak migrates into the wine, preserving it. If you’ve ever sipped black tea that has been steeped too long, you know what tannin tastes like: Its bitter flavor is marked by a mouth-drying, mouth-prickling sensation. Over time, however, the bitterness of tannin drops away and becomes a background note — think of the way that thunder sounds on the horizon, as opposed to the boom when it’s right on top of you. Tannin plus age equals that distant rumble.
Europe, of course, is known for its superb wines. There are vast swaths of France and Spain where wine grapes grow as thickly as corn grows in Iowa. And just as a good gardener plants some vegetables to eat right away (spring peas) and some to can or to keep in the root cellar (beets), European vintners have always planted some wines to drink right away (typically whites) and some to store (bigger reds).
Bear in mind that there are exceptions: Some white wines do age well, notably French wines, like white Burgundy (which Americans often call by the grape it contains, Chardonnay) and Sauternes. Still, the majority of the world’s white wines are meant to be consumed soon after release.
Back to the wines in question: What are your best bets among the highly tannic European reds that are released cheap, but improve with age — and can even be stored for several decades?
Here are three wines worth storing in your cellar (or any dark place that's neither too hot nor too cold and is never, ever bathed in sunlight. A constant temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit is considered ideal):
Rioja from Spain: Red wine from the Rioja region of Spain, made from the Tempranillo grape, is meant to age. A good wine merchant should have plenty of “crianza,” which is a young wine, at about $10 a bottle. Reserva wines are a little bit older, usually aged for two years. You can buy them now for $16 to $30 a bottle, and they can age for 20 years or more. A red Riojas at release should be tannic — tasting this wine is like sucking on a black-tea bag — but it should have a discernable cherry fruit presence in the background. In your cellar, the tannins will recede as the fruit comes forward to create a symphony of balance.
Chianti: Since the Middle Ages, the region of Italy between Florence and Siena has been known as the Chianti Mountains. Today any red wine labeled "Chianti" comes from that area and can be aged to great effect. Some obscure Chiantis, priced from $8 to $15 on release, will age prettily. When they're brand new, they should have both berry and spice, which will come together into something more whole over time.
Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux: Bordeaux is the region in France where big-name red wine grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon come from, and it’s where wildly expensive bottles like Chateau Haut-Brion begin. Bordeaux is also a vast geographical area, from which literally tens of thousands of other good wines come from, including many that age beautifully and are priced well under $20. If you walk into any good wine shop with a deep French portfolio and ask for Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux, which essentially means “cheap but genuine Bordeaux," you should receive something in the $10 to $20 range made from a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. If you taste a red Bordeaux when it's young, you should detect the presence of fruit and some sort of life among the pepper and oak — fruit and life that will become more vivid as the wine ages.
By Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a five-time James Beard Award winning food and wine writer whose latest book is Drink This: Wine Made Simple. She lives in Minneapolis, where she also reviews restaurants.
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