Friday, December 12, 2008

How Well Do B.C. Wines Age?

By Julianna Hayes

Since 95 per cent of wines are consumed within 24 hours of purchase, you wouldn’t think many people would get all worked up about the age-ability of their bottles.

Yet I get scads of queries from enthusiasts who want to know how long they can reasonably cellar a wine and how well they can expect it to age, should they ever have the urge. Typically the questions come from individuals who want to hold onto a special wine to enjoy on a momentous occasion in the distance future – such as a significant wedding anniversary, child’s 21st birthday or graduation.

I do my best to provide the information based on my own experience with aging wines, how the wines are made, and recommendations from vintners. But when it comes to B.C. wines, for the most part it’s been a crap shoot.

Old World wineries have centuries of making age-worthy wines under their belts. It’s fair to say that a proper Bordeaux from France can safely be tucked away for 10-plus years – but what about an Okanagan Meritage?

That’s what Rhys Pender of Wine Plus Consulting set out to resolve with a unique seminar last week studying how well local wines mature. Ten Years of Okanagan Wine featured a tasting of 12 B.C. bottles, all at least a decade old.

As someone with a few dusty local relics lurking in my wine rack, this seminar could potentially reveal whether I had a number of gems tucked safely away, or if simply I was in possession of some well-fermented vinegar.

Looking at Pender’s list, I suspected a number of the wines to be well past their prime. Included was a 1987 Gray Monk Riesling – complete with the garish red and black label that was the bottle’s uniform of the day.

There was also one of B.C.’s most famous wines – the 1992 Mission Hill Grand Reserve Chardonnay, which won the industry’s most talked about wine award: Best Chardonnay in the world at the 1994 International Wine and Spirits Competition. But at 16 years of age, I didn’t have much hope of it having held up.

Yet those wines and all the others surprised me – and pleasantly, I might add. While they might not be to everyone’s taste and a couple had certainly seen better days, none of them had deteriorated to the point of being undrinkable. In fact, many of them were quite delicious, which pains me to think of the potential lost in all those bottles I’ve opened and downed.

Pender, with the help of two skillful panelists – Sommelier Mark Filatow and Road 13 Winemaker Michael Bartier, facilitated the tasting, which included three Rieslings, two Chardonnays, two Cabernet Sauvignons, four Bordeaux-style red blends and one sparkling wine. Having multiples of most of these styles or varieties was terrific for comparison purposes.

Here are some of the more interesting points made during the seminar that you should consider of if you plan to age wines, local or otherwise:

There is a lot of bottle variation with older wines. Even bottles stored under identical conditions will sometimes not age and taste the same when opened even side by side. For example, one of two bottles of a wine we tried had a dusty, woody aroma that we assumed came from the cork. The cork wasn’t tainted, but somehow imparted some of its own characteristics into the wine. The other bottle was fine and both came from Pender’s cellar. That’s why it’s always a good idea to stock more than one bottle of a wine you plan to keep for a while.

As wines age, dominant fruit flavours begin to fade and are replaced by secondary flavours – more earthy, mineral or flinty, spicy and nutty characteristics. If you like them fresh and fruity, then drink them young. Sweetness also fades, acid and alcohol become more noticeable.

A wine that ages well should taste good on release, meaning you should also be able to drink it young. Unsavoury characteristics will not improve over time, said Bartier. Wines shouldn’t taste better or worse with aging, just different.

Cellaring wine may actually save you money – the average bottle of B.C. wine in 1992 was just over $6. By 1998, the price had risen to around $12. Now the average bottle retails for $17-plus.

It’s an accepted fact that the more mature the vines are, the better the age-ability of the wine. The Okanagan’s vineyards are considered quite youthful, so if wines made from such young vines are showing well after 10 years, the future should be very bright, remarked Filatow.

Alcohol content has risen significantly in the last decade, noted Pender. Most of the whites sampled in this tasting were under 12 per cent and the reds under 14 per cent. Now 13-14 per cent and more is the norm.

Check out Pender's website for information on his education programs –

Wine Notes

Here are some brief notes from the 10 Years of Okanagan Wine tasting:

Sumac Ridge 1997 Blanc de Noirs Brut
Still bright and fresh with fresh apple aromas and more pronounced yeasty, nutty character than would have been apparent when first released. Mineral and petrol hints, common to more aged sparkling wines.

Hainle 1997 Riesling
Most of the fruit character has given way to aromas and flavours of petrol, spice and mineral. Wine has searing acidity and alcohol is evident even at the relative low percentage. Would make a stylish food wine – Filatow recommends something like a cream of celery soup.

Wild Goose 1996 Riesling
Still fresh honeyed apricot, orange muscat aromas that are almost late-harvest or boytritis-affected in style. Pleasant sweet and sour on the palate with quite a lot of zip on the finish

Gray Monk 1987 Riesling
Some apple, honey, mineral, nutty and spicy character and lots of acidity. That aged petrol character is also evident. Impressive for a 21-year-old wine.

Mission Hill 1992 Grand Reserve Chardonnay
This big medal winner still shows peach, honey, with some petrol and a hint of aged sherry character. Comments were made that it tasted like a fine “Old World Chardonnay.”

Quails' Gate 1994 Family Reserve Chardonnay
This wine made an indelible impression on me when it was released and I was surprised to find just how much it still tasted the same after 14 years. Smoky bacon fat, baked apple, lime, nuttiness, spice and plenty of acidity.

Kettle Valley 1995 Cabernet-Merlot
Quite a lot still going on with cherry cough syrup, floral, olive, black cherry, orange zest characteristics. Quite a lot of acidity and some tannin remain.

Sumac Ridge 1998 Black Sage Meritage
Cherry, violet, blackberry, licorice and pie crust aromas. Velvety texture and still fresh and lively. Still has age-ability – has loads of finesse.

Mission Hill 1998 Oculus
Barnyard, earthy aromas with leather, soya sauce and coffee bean. More fruit is apparent on the palate with some white pepper, orange zest, spice and some tannin. Some people might find this too funky, but others love the style.

Poplar Grove 1998 Legacy
Cherry, chocolate, herbal, orange zest, kirsch and floral aromas. Texture is quite silky with some remaining tannin. Quite a yummy wine and still has further ability to age.

La Frenz 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon
Smoky, meaty, spicy aromas with coffee bean, black cherry and a touch of green bell pepper. Ripe black fruit and meaty, smoky flavours and a hint of herbaceousness.

Burrowing Owl 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon
Coffee, chocolate, cherry, olive juice, canned tomato paste and some herbal notes in the bouquet. Concentrated flavours of soya sauce, chocolate, dark fruits and spice.

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