Age Your Reds




Time does wonders for well-structured red wines. They will sometimes astonish you, as I discovered on a recent evening.

What shall I drink tonight with dinner? That’s what was on my mind as I ventured to my wine cellar and surveyed the shelves. After several days of tasting aggressive, young reds, I was in the mood for something round and smooth — a Merlot perhaps — something with a little age on it.

Shafer ’98? Too big for just me this evening. Oakencroft ’95? No, I wanted to surprise some wine-loving friends with that; some months ago this Virginia Merlot was terrific. I pulled another dusty bottle from its cubicle: Jaeger Merlot Ingleside 1986.

Hmm …

Good grief, it’s 32 years old! Probably gone, I thought; that’s old for a Merlot. (Except maybe Petrus, the Bordeaux red that is 95-100% Merlot — the ’86 currently auctions at over $2,000 a bottle.)

It’s probably dried out or oxidized, I thought, as I looked at the slightly tattered label. There was some sentiment attached. The wine was a gift from Bill and Lila Jaeger, co-founders of Rutherford Hill in Napa Valley, who made limited quantities of Merlot from the vineyard adjacent to their house on Ingleside Lane in Rutherford.

Well, I mused, better try it — it certainly won’t get any better.

Usually I like to give old wines a full day or so standing up, to let the sediments slide to the bottom of the bottle. It was midday when I brought the Jaeger Merlot in from the cold, but it proved time enough for it to warm to room temperature.

Many an old cork will crumble, so just before dinner I used the Ah-So cork puller to withdraw it, gently working the metal prongs downward on either side. The cork came out whole and amazingly sound, a moist dark-red stain near the end.

It smelled of wine — a promising sign.

I decanted over a flashlight, till the dark arrow of sediment appeared very near the end of the pour. A muddy film clung to one side of the bottle, but the wine in the carafe was a vibrant dark garnet.

I gave it a swirl, poured out a glass and sniffed. Aromas of black fruits wafted forth — ripe plum, dark berries, a hint of licorice.

I sipped. The taste was smooth but lively, flush with black fruit flavors, warm and rich in texture. I marveled at its vibrancy after all those years. It was not the least faded or tired, but balanced, complex and long in finish.

I savored the wine with braised short ribs, relishing the layers of flavor that each sip revealed. I thought how only time can make that happen, and how much wine lovers miss in sheer enjoyment by drinking good reds too young. It’s a sin against nature to drink a wine before its time, before it has time to fulfill its promise. Like Cain killing Abel in the flower of his youth.

I drank half the wine that night and funneled the rest into a clean half-bottle, filling it to the rim so no more air would get in and sealing it with a screw cap.

The next night, to my surprise (though I don’t know why), it was even better. Still flush with fruit but even smoother, going down like silk.

The leftover short ribs were better, too.

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