"I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is not to be condemned for presenting 'older' vintage wines. Thank you. I face this issue frequently from wine critics and from restaurateurs who usually are interested only in wines produced within the last year or two."
The above heartfelt observation comes from Ellen Mack, owner of Russian Hill Winery in Sonoma. It is an appropriate introduction to this week's column, a disquisition on the virtues of not drinking a fine wine before its time. And that also goes for wines from California (and, in some cases, especially wines from California), the spiritual home of instant gratification.
To age or not to age? For years, red wine basically fell into two groups: wine that needed to mature, and wine intended to be consumed immediately. The former camp, it was generally agreed, included quality wines, premier crus, and the like, while the latter had less ambitious aspirations. With modern oenological technology, there is now a third category: good wines designed to be consumed when they're young. Most notable are New World wines—grown in the U.S., Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, etc.—and a major driver behind the growing global wine market.
But just because a wine can be drunk young doesn't necessarily mean it should. In fact, many New World winemakers would prefer their creations to spend a few more years in the bottle. This is Mack's point. Her cri de coeur was in response to my observations on the maturity, or immaturity, and the aging potential of her Estate Syrah 2006. My initial impression was that this was a potentially great wine but still far from complete. All the elements were there, but they were bumping around like a group of unruly adolescents. They needed time to grow up.
So I contacted Ellen to test out this theory and was heartened, if somewhat surprised, by her vigorous response. It turns out that she not only makes wines designed to improve with age; she is also a strong proponent of the virtues of patience and the importance of waiting for a wine to mature before drinking it.
"I guess I'd like to say stop, relax, and think about it, because older wines can have a beauty to them that a brand-new product may not have."
This raises a question, however, why so many Americans prefer younger, immature wines. Is it simply because it's the newest, the latest?
Mack believes it's in the American character: "We're part of the New World and more than the rest of the world do truly believe that new is better."
The wisdom of her philosophy of patience was bought home to me a few days later when I pulled the cork on this week's Wine of the Week, the Russian Hill Windsor Oaks Summit Syrah 2002 ($40).
"This is a perfect example," explains Mack. "It's a very unusual syrah, very different from the other syrahs we make. It is mountain-grown fruit, so it's a massive wine, which makes it more difficult for it to end up as an elegant wine. When it's young, it's out of balance, not integrated. It's too brawny, too big. But all the components are there. This wine takes at least five years before you should drink it, and the 2002 vintage is what we are drinking in our household now."
I can see why. As soon as I opened it, my nose was overwhelmed by an explosion of the seductive aromas of cherries and strawberries. On the palate, these were enhanced by the typical syrah notes of earth and spice, followed by hints of dark chocolate and wet leather.
This is a muscular wine whose rambunctious personality has been tamed and mellowed by time. Robust enough for a big juicy steak while still managing—and I never imagined I'd say this about a New World syrah—a degree of delicate, feminine charm. It's a beguiling combination, and one that well shows the rewards of waiting for a wine to come in to its own.
Mack practices what she preaches—every year she holds back a proportion of that vintage's production for longer aging and sells them from the winery when she considers them ready. And yes, the Windsor Oaks Summit 2002 is currently available at www.russianhillestate.com.
When to Drink: Now
Breathing/Decanting: One hour's breathing helps
Food Pairing: Robust meat and pasta dishes
Appellation: Russian River Valley