Inconvenient Truths

The Caveman Speaks
by Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

I have a pretty good life being a wine critic. I get to travel the world and hang out with “gourmandes” and bon vivants. Aside from having lost pretty well all the enamel on my teeth, there is very little to complain about. Oh, there is one other thing, I have to taste way too much wine.

Now before you all start thinking “Cry me a river you spoilt baby,” understand that it is work. First, much of the wine we critics have to taste isn’t all that exciting. Many in fact anger me due to their lack of character or simply because they taste bad.

But that’s not what bugs me most. Maybe 15 years ago, when I started getting serious about wine, I made a commitment to myself to mostly drink from my basement as opposed to buying wines at the SAQ and drinking them the same night. And for years I happily drank wines from my modest cellar. Most of those wines were pretty modest, between $20-$30 a bottle.

Those days are gone. Since I became a wine writer, I spend most of my drinking time testing out the latest arrivals – drinking young wines. And this leads me to a very inconvenient truth about wine: drinking young wine is just “ok.”

The point was driven home at a dinner party I threw last winter. We had just started to eat – rib roast, cauliflower baked with Gré des Champs cheese, roasted potato, and all doused with a truffle sauce. We were seven around the table and I opened one of the magnums I had in my cellar – a 1990 Château Barbeyrolles. This mourvèdre-based, Côte de Provence was given to me by wine maker Régine Sumeire on my last trip to Provence. A couple of minutes after the first few bites of truffled cheesy cauliflower and prime rib, I glanced over to the other end of the table and my buddy Herve raised his glass in silence, gave it a quick swirl, finished his bite and drank it down. He gave me that “Damn this is ever good” look.

And it was. The wine was wonderfully “thin,” much like a classically made nebbiolo. The aromatics were staggering – flowers, cherry blossoms, mushrooms. All that boisterous primary fruit and oak of a young wine had become kirsch, sweet earth and spice. And a beautiful counterpoint to the truffle sauce. The tannins were there, but gave the wine just enough heft to stand up to the richness of the rib.

Despite that myself and Herve were the only wine “experts” there that night, the reaction of my normally not so “wine fussy” friends was unanimous – this was a meal to remember. Everyone thanked me for opening such an expensive bottle of wine. Never being one to shun a bit of flattery, I didn’t say anything that night, but if you were to buy a bottle of a recent vintage of Barbeyrolles, which unfortunately is not available here in Quebec, it would set you back around $20. Let’s call that magnum $45.

As you can see from the price tag, it has less to do with the price of the bottle, rather it’s a question of bottle age and pedigree. And here is another inconvenient truth – every wine has its time. It might be six months, a few years, or 18 as was the case with that magnum of Barbeyrolles, but nothing rewards a wine lover like patience.

Inside the cellars of Lopez de Heredia

Inside the cellars of Lopez de Heredia

Unfortunately this is not part of our drinking culture and it isn’t for a number of reasons. Most people don’t have wine cellars. Storing wine takes up space and if you live in an apartment, when the temperature in mid-summer climbs to 30ºC, we are not talking ideal cellar conditions. It also requires a certain amount of cash outlay, even if you are stocking wines in the $20-$40 range. And for many, it simply isn’t a priority.

This is not to say that drinking wines in their youth is necessarily a bad thing. Young wines can have a wonderful ‘fruitiness,’ and because of their spicy tannins and vibrant acidity, can feel very “alive” in your mouth. I remember a dinner a few years back with wine maker Jean-Paul Daumen of the Rhône winery Domaine de la Vieille Julienne. We drank his 2005 and 2006 Châteauneuf-de-Pape and they were very good. Not transcendent but as good as one could possibly expect from any well-made young wine. But we finished our meal with his 2001, and there we started to see the evidence of maturity – depth and complexity, a caressing mouthfeel, the beginnings of greatness.

There is always a risk involved when cellaring wines, that they may become too old, devoid of any real fruit and lacking any real structure. Did I know that the 1990 magnum would be that good? Nope. What I knew was that 1990 was a phenomenal year in the south of France and wine maker Régine Sumeire makes wines in a very traditional manner – never over ripe which translates into wines with enough acidity and a quality of tannin to be able to evolve with grace. It was an educated guess and the payoff was that we got to drink a wine at it’s apogee – when all wines should, in a perfect world, be drunk.

So for those of you who have a cellar, or are thinking about starting your own wine collection, as much as I would love to give you the formula as to when your wines will be at their best – I can’t. I can however say that by drinking wines as they age, you will get a different perspective and a deeper understanding of what wine can be, and how wine can inspire at times such reverence.

Apostolos Thymiopoulos' Naoussa is a great inexpensive wine for your cellar

Apostolos Thymiopoulos’ Naoussa is a great inexpensive wine for your cellar

And for those who don’t that’s fine too. Well made wine can be drunk and enjoyed in their youth – it is simply a case of not witnessing the beauty of its full potential. Unfortunately nothing is able to replace patience – as inconvenient a truth as that may be.

So if you are looking for some mid-priced wines that will gain with a few years, or decades, in a cellar, here are a few suggestions. And yes, they can all be enjoyed now as well.

We’ll start in Greece with one of my favourite wines, the 2011 Noussa Terre et Ciel from Apostolos Thymiopoulos. So graceful and complex with a structure that reminds me of nebbiolo.

Speaking of nebbiolo, Cantina del Pino’s 2009 Barbaresco shows all the signs of traditional wine making. Great acidity, gritty tannin and a delicate fruitiness. For the price, a great buy and can live for a least a decade.

Staying in Italy, one of the better under $30 bargains is Umani Ronchi’s Cùmaro. The 2009 shows what is great about the montepulciano grape – ripe but not jammy fruit and some super grippy tannin. Easily will cellar well over the next 5 years.

One of the better wines I have tried recently is Dominio De Pingus’ 2011 Psi. Made from old vine tempranillo, this is but a baby and will gain so much more depth and complexity over the next decade.

Finally, the cellar isn’t just a place for red wines. I probably have as much white wine down there as red. Try to put away a few bottles of Prà’s 2012 Soave Monte Grande. So delicate, yet as it opens up, gains so much depth and complexity. Would love to see this in 3-5 years.

If you are looking to have your mind blown, then try the 2004 Rioja Gravonia from Lopez de Heredia. Just read the review to get a sense of what you are up against here.

Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro 2011Cantina Del Pino Barbaresco 2009Umani Ronchi Cùmaro 2009Dominio De Pingus Psi 2011Prà Monte Grande Soave Classico 2012Vina Gravonia Rioja Crianza 2004

Happy summer folks,


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

Editors Note: You can find Bill’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names or bottle images above. Premium subscribers see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!