When I am asked, “What should I buy?” It is usually qualified by one of the following, for dinner, as a gift, to start my cellar. Each of these is worthy of an email. I’ll be writing a pair of gifting emails as the holidays approach, and will follow soon with one covering the basic food and wine pairing principles, but today I want to begin to tackle all that is “cellarable” wine.
To get to the root of the question “What wines should I cellar?” one needs to begin by figuring out what one likes. That is the relatively easy part of this puzzle. Finding the wines you love is a fairly simple deductive process, and fun too! You just need to discover WHY you enjoy a specific wine. Now that sounds simple, doesn’t it?
What to expect: AcidAcidity is naturally occuring in wine. Grapes produce malic acid, tartaric acid and citric acid, in addition to more esoteric acids. Acidity in wine is responsible for a zesty, crisp, refeshing feel that helps to balance a wine's naturally sweet flavors, or residual sugar. As grapes ripen, and their sugars increase, their acidity tends to decrease. Winemakers walk a fine line between harvesting ripe grapes with intact acidity on one day, or perhaps waiting for the next when they might be faced with even riper grapes lacking in acidity. Cool nights during the final days before harvest help to preserve the grapes acidity, though winemakers today can both add and remove acidity to suit their goals.
You might think that finding wines to cellar is not worth the effort, or simply too difficult, but trust me, if it’s a question you’ve asked it’s a question worth answering. There will be problems, wines that did not turn out as you had imagined, or wines that you come to find you don’t really enjoy, but the path of discovery you’ll take is exciting enough and rewarding enough to turn those errors into minor irritations. And besides, you’ll always have wine for your friends and family!
So to begin with we need to find where your preferences lay. In general one has to sample wines at the extreme end of the spectrum to really get a feel for ones preferences. Much of the great wine of the world, at all price points, has converged on a style that renders them very medium. Medium acid, medium tannin, medium structure, and, well, you get the idea.
A good place to start is finding out if you enjoy wines with significant structure. The acid and tannin that serve as the framework to support aging of wines are referred to as the wines structure. For most age worthy white wines that structure is the acid, though sugar gets involved here complicating things for everyone. The great reds rely on a balanced combination of acid and tannin.
The first step in calibrating one’s palate is to try wines that are high in acidity and tannin. Two grapes spring to mind as particularly high in acid: Italy’s Barbera and Sangiovese. Both offer a good way to check how tolerant you are of elevated levels of acidity. In fact most Italian wine can be thought of as high acid, in that they do exhibit a leaner, more acidic profile than grapes more commonly associated with other regions, such as Spain and France, though Gamay and Pinot Noir are both prone to making high acid wines with modest tannins.
Discerning Structure in a wine.Find Zesty Barbera
Barbera, in particular less expensive Barbera that has only been aged in Stainless steel, is particularly low in tannin, giving a real gauge against which to judge how your palate reacts to acidity. Sangiovese has a bit of tannin, more as you move up the price scale, and especially so when you start getting into Super Tuscans and the like, but your good old fashioned Chianti will give you a nice zing of acidity without too much tannin getting in the way.
Find Soft Grenache Based Wines
Finding wines that exhibit low acid, and low tannin, is a tougher project. Dolcetto and Grenache are two prime examples of wines that have hope of fitting the bill. The level of acidification and barrel ageing these two wines are liable to receive makes the search not quite impossible, but close to it. Still, if one searches and selects wines from a warm climate, or the warmest vintages, one can easily uncover soft, opulent examples that are ideal for this sort of experiment.
The last step, of sorts, in working out one’s structural preferences, is to attack the wines that feature both high acid and high tannins. Grapes like Nebbiolo and Baga are famed for their combination of these elements, and though many producers have worked diligently over the years to soften the image, not to mention the impact on the palate, of these two giants there is only so much one can do. In general wines made with Nebbiolo and Baga tend to retain a certain rusticity, especially at the low end of the price spectrum, that many find appealing.
So there it is. Step one in my answer to the question “What should I Cellar?” in all it’s glory. Again I could have easily just recommend some Bordeaux, a few Barolos, a Burgundy or three and been done with it, but the truth is that there is so much more to cellaring wine, and so many wines worth cellaring, that it really takes a bit of detective work to narrow down one’s choices, and increase one’s chances, of ultimately enjoying those bottles that you’ve loving laid away.
Next week we’ll work on the next step, identifying wines that fit specific palate preferences and get to the nuts and bolts of starting a cellar.