Friday, March 21, 2008

Old Wine, Young Wine - Either Way, Don't Whine

I first learned to appreciate wine with a mentor who believed in storing wines for years. A lot of years. On my first occasion eating dinner at his house Laszlo served, in sequence, a wine from 2001, 1985, 1979, and 1974 -- the last three corresponding to the birth years of his guests (this was in 2005). So I appreciate an aged wine when it comes my way.

Last night, since it was Purim (and, as Neen mentioned earlier, this means it is mitzvot to have a festive meal), I opened a bottle of German Riesling from 1998 that I located earlier this year at a wine store around DC at fire sale prices. (Cough... maybe you see where this is going?) As soon as I opened the bottle I was concerned. One of the first things to look at when opening a bottle of wine is its cork. I know it seems pretentious to pretend you can learn anything from the cork, but seriously you can. Take this cork for example, when I first took the foil off the top of the bottle you could see the large amounts of residue that had been seeping out from the cork. Now, this is okay - its good actually, because it means that the cork is wet. This means there should be a good balance of air exchange between the bottle and the outside world. This is how a bottle ages. The problem was, when I removed the cork it was very firm. Why is that a problem? Because when a cork is "wet" it becomes slightly mushy, this is particularly true as cork ages. A ten year old piece of cork that is very firm does not have wine seeping through it, the wine is seeping around it. That is bad. Very bad.

As soon as I poured the wine, my concerns settled like a hard lump in my stomach. The dark, amber hues of the wine are the kinds one expects from a white wine that is much, much older (a wine 20+ years old can have that color) - this wine had definitely been over exposed to air. The nose of the wine, however, showed none of the sharp vinegar notes that usually accompany a corked wine. A tentative sip of the glass was shocking. The wine had over-oxidized, but it had simply lost its stronger fruit character and gained a body reminiscent of sherry. I would not call it a great wine, but it was actually quiet pleasant. Dry, with no flavor on the front of the palate, but a reasonably complex set of flavors on the mid-to-back palate. It didn't have the nutty flavor that is often associated with sherry, but it was still nice enough.

Of course, it wasn't going to pair with dinner at all. So, I still opened a second bottle. This one had been a recommendation from a staff member of a Whole Foods we frequent on occasion - it is an American Viogner, by Pepperwood Grove. It has a fairly gentle nose, but a wonder flavor. Very fruity, light, and complex. Almost more of a summer wine, but given our obsession with the warmth of Spring, it was a perfect match for pre-dinner sipping. (Neen sipped this, while I went after our Riesling sherry - of course we swapped regularly). You can see the difference in colors between the two wines in the photo. The dark colored wine on the left is the sherry Riesling, while the almost transparent wine is the Viogner.

With dinner, unfortunately, neither wine really worked. The sherry was too dry, so against the spicy potato filling of the cabbage wraps it tasted almost corrosive. The Viogner, on the other hand, was too light. It got knocked around by the power of the food. One could only barely taste the wine over the heavy spicing, and really, even then, it was just the flavor of alcohol and some of the acidic bite. Let that be a lesson to me, viogner is not Riesling, and should not be used to pair against strongly spiced food. Ah well, it is still a very nice sipping wine - I just wouldn't recommend it for a food pairing.

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