Young couple walks into a wine store. They wander around in that "Not-looking-for-anything-specific-over-here!" kind of way. Coy but focused. Avoiding my attention, but in need of it.
"Is there anything I can help y'all find?"
"Yes," the groom says assertively. " We just had a daughter recently and I'm looking for a wine we can drink with her on her 21st birthday. We want to share our passion with her!
"Great! Mazel tov! Let's find a good bottle for you! She deserves to the best! Do you have any particular kind of wine in mind?"
Here it comes...wait for it....
"Well, we love California Cabernet, so that's what we want!"
FREEZE! You're doing it wrong.
Wine purchased for a child's 21st birthday is what I call a "Legacy Wine." It's a great idea, but most people do it wrong. There are several pitfalls you can fall into when looking for a Legacy Wine. I'd like to go through each one of the traps and how you can avoid it.
This is one time in your life when professional advice counts! Only good things will happen if you heed it - you'll enjoy the wines more, as will your party guests, and you'll end up a celebrity, an icon, a legend of wine prowess with the kids. Win-win.
Buying the wrong wine, part I
I have nothing against California Cabernet Sauvignon. They make some damn fine wine in the Golden State. It's just not the best choice for a wine you want to store for two decades and then serve to your loved ones.
Plenty of California Cabernets can live 20 years. They aren't festooned with too much alcohol and have sufficient tannin and acid to balance the plethora of fruit. There's only one difficulty - to get the really good ones, the ones that can age gracefully, you have to pay a lot of money. How much? Start at $100, but more likely well over $250.
The fix for this is to find a wine suitable for the task, and frankly, one with better price to quality to longevity ratio - what the boys in the Pentagon call "bang for the buck."
I'm not criticizing the job you're doing as parents. I'm not even criticizing the wine you love the most. I just think there are better wines for the task. Let's get down to business.
Most wine buyers, even seasoned ones, assume that reds age the best. It's not true. If you want long aging wines, whites are your best bet. Whites are also less expensive wines that do the job of aging gracefully without robbing you blind.
Genuine Champagnes are designed and built to last. I've tasted beautiful Champagnes made in the 1970's and they were beautiful - Pineapple, pear, lime fruit out the wazoo, polished, refined, with enough acid to be bright as broad daylight and flavors like biscuits, nuts, caramel and toast in the finish. Some Champagnes aren't released without 10 years of age! Though the better known houses (my favorite is Salon) will last decades, they are expensive. Better to hunt for what's called a "grower" Champagne - wines made by the farmers that supply places like Cristal and Dom Pérignon.
This is a very small appellation from the Loire Valley of France, made with Chenin Blanc. This isn't the cheap bulk wine your (grand)parents drank as California Chablis. This is a powerhouse dry white, with maximum apricot, lime, quince, lemon fruit. Incredibly floral, even at 20 years of age, they take on weight and richness and complexity with a mix of spicy and earthy qualities. Drinking a perfectly aged Savennières is a revelation for the red only drinker! Price? 40-$100 a bottle.
German Rieslings are probably the best Legacy Wines you can find. They will age forever and get better with each passing year. How long, you ask? Well, let's consult Therry Theise (page 113), the man with the most encyclopedic knowledge of the region, its wines, and their potential.
The best legacy Rieslings fall into the Spätlese and Auslese categories, with the former lasting 25 years and the latter 35! These are sweet wines, but after that much age, they will lose the sugar but keep their fruit, while adding complexity other flavors. Don't like sweet wines? Make sure you see both the word "trocken" (dry) on the label, along with either Spätlese or Auslese. These will be ripe, but not sweet.
Still not convinced? Read this excerpt from a review of a 2010 Riesling Auslese, keeping in mind this is without the benefit of aging:
...caramelized peach and mango; concentrated lime and pink grapefruit; honeysuckle, rowan and orange blossom;)...allied to the sort of transparency to stony, saline, smoky, and crystalline nuances....
Yes, please! You can get wines like this for $50 or less. Still set on Napa Cabernet?
100% Syrah, they're are often called the most masculine of wines. They have abundant blackberry, blueberry and black current fruit, tempered by earthy flavors like coffee, licorice, cocoa, and maybe a hit of sweat. Imagine Hermitage wines as teenage football players. When they're young, the testosterone poisoning is annoying. After a few decades, they've grown into fine young men their families can be proud of. How much do these bad boys cost? You can get long-lived wines for $60-100 a bottle.
Barolo and Barbaresco
Named after the Italian villages where they're grown, these wines are made from Nebbiolo. Remember that scene in Sideways? The one where Paul Giamatti so poetically describes how difficult it is to grow Pinot Noir? Pinot Noir is an obedient Mennonite farm girl compared to Nebbiolo's spoiled princess! Never fear - Barolo and Barbaresco producers know how to handle her. The wines are powerful but nuanced explosions of cherry and black raspberry counterbalanced with earthy tar, licorice flavors, graced with rose petal and violets. These wines are transcendent. How much does transcendence cost? $50-75.
California Petite Sirah
If you're looking for a Legacy Wine from California, it's Petite Sirah. Be careful, though: many Petite producers don't build the wines to their full potential, opting to make wines for immediate enjoyment. Petite Sirah from the right place, however, will provide you all the black fruit, graphite, smoke, charcoal flavors you want. Just don't try to drink them early! Patience is required with these wines, and for $45-75 a bottle, it will be fully rewarded.
In about 20 years. Perfect timing!
Buying the wrong wine, part II
OK, now that you have an idea of better wine for the job; how to choose?
You're not psychic. California might be passé by then. They may mock you for drinking that as if it were Mateus rosé! They may ask you when you're going to get hip to the Tonghua appellation in China. They may even prefer beer, in all its glorious varieties, just to spite you! Or...
They may not like wine at all! (The horror! The horror!)
You can't see the future, so what to do?
Buy what you want to drink on their 21st birthday. Your child will be flattered, humbled and impressed by your resolution and discipline in executing a task that took 21 years to accomplish. They won't care (and shouldn't) what it is. It's like being a Jeopardy!contestant; no one will care if you won or lost - they'll just think it was cool you were on the show.
OK, you've selected the best wine for your legacy. You're not done. There are just a few details left to assure success.
Most people don't buy enough wine. True, you'll only need a bottle or two to share with your newly minted adult for the actual party, but you have to buy much more than that - you'll need a case. Here's why.
Wines are like superheroes - what counts is who they were before they got their powers. Once they're transformed, their superpowers only magnify the flaws or virtues they had as ordinary mortals. The same is true of aging wines - if it was a good wine before the aging process, it'll be a superhero. If it was flawed wine, it metamorphoses into to an archvillian with age. How do you know what's going on? Open a bottle every few years and taste it. This way, you see if you have superhero or archvillain AND have time to replace the wine if you want.
This sounds like a lot of money, but amortize it. If you spend $75 a bottle and purchase 12, store it for 21 years, that works out to $3.57 a month. You spend more than that on Starbucks coffee!
Second, you have to store these wines properly if you're going to age it properly. That means you absolutely must store it in a temperature controlled environment. Don't panic, though - you don't have to rush out immediately to do this. If you store the wine in a cool, dark place for a few months, or even a year, it probably won't affect the wine enough for you to notice. You have time to find a long term solution.
There are two solutions to your problem: 1) buy a wine refrigerator; 2) get offsite storage. In most cases, the first one is the best solution.
If you choose to buy a wine refrigerator, you only have to decide one thing - are you buying it solely to store your Legacy Wine? If so, spend only enough to store that single case of wine. You don't need fancy features or large size. Most of the wines you drink are made to consume wine now, so no need to store.
Love wine? You should probably buy a larger wine cooler, once that will store between 50-200 bottles. Though most wines are built to drink now, many of the best wines must be purchased before they are ready. It's the only way these wines are affordable, and in some cases, the wines are too tannic to drink right away. With a larger cooler, you can have a safe place for your Legacy Wine, age some bottles, and have a centralized location for your regular drinkers.
The other solution for storing a Legacy Wine is to find a wine storage site, a place to store your wine for a monthly fee. That way someone pays the electricity to keep the air moist and at a temperature somewhere around 55-60 F for 21 years. Just make sure the storage place is bonded and insured. Power fails and wines get stolen.
No free lunch
Be aware that even I, your humble wine insider, do not have perfect solutions to all wine conundra! Shocking, but true! There are even difficulties to my strategy for buying Legacy Wines. Here they are, in front of God and everybody.
Finding, purchasing and storing a Legacy Wine means lots of research into the best producers, retailers and storage options. You will have to fire up the internets, get on the horn and actually write stuff down. Do your homework here, or every time you insist your child does all the hard work, you'll be a hypocrite.
Oh yeah, you're doing this for your kids! Don't mess it up!
Some of these wines will be hard to find. We're talking about obscure grapes, small producers and rare appellations. You're not going to find these wines at Wal-Mart and maybe not even at your hometown liquor store. You may have to buy directly from the winemakers themselves. Be prepared. Be committed. Be persistent.
The only other downside to this approach is you'll have to try a lot more wines...oh wait, never mind.
I think you have a better start now down this path. Have I mentioned everything? No, nary a word about dessert wines like Port, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese, which outlast everything mentioned above. I'm saving that for another column.
A final thought here - your descendants may not appreciate the second and third mortgages you took on the house to pay for the doctorate in comparative religion. They may not thank you for the 5 years you sacrificed working in Iran, apart from your family to ensure their futures. They may never even know what you gave up for their success. Do this right, however, and they will thank you for it and remember it forever.
That's a good legacy.