Don’t Pour It Down the Drain!

Most consumers buy wine to enjoy within hours or days, often in preparation or anticipation of a social engagement. Some people stock up for the holidays or with summer revelry in mind, but these wines rarely lie in wait for more than a year. Wine shopping is usually an affair of the right now, as in “That red looks good” or “I remember liking that one” or “Look at that cute label.” A wine bought in the afternoon can already be history by the time the night ends.

Yet backlogs form all too often, especially after a trip through the Finger Lakes, where the atmosphere inspires one to buy multiple bottles of wine from several different wineries in a single day. Most of these purchases are enjoyed quickly, but a few bottles may escape notice. Years pass, and the bottles collect dust in the basement. They’re a surprising discovery four or five years later when the consumer comes across a bottle that he or she somewhat remembers purchasing many summers before.

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether this wine is worthy of serving to guests in lieu of fresher fare. It is not an unknown phenomenon that the contents of these older bottles will find their way into the sink moments before the recyclables are gathered together in a bin on garbage night. In some cases, this action might be an appropriate end to a wine that is past its prime.

However, many wines are still quite alive years after their purchase, often exhibiting more complex flavors the longer they are left in bottle. Many of the white wines for which the Finger Lakes region is celebrated can last for years if stored properly. While it is still hotly debated, it is entirely possible that red wines from the Finger Lakes can age gracefully as well. Ice wines and sparkling wines, both known to do well here, are as a rule fairly hearty wine products that can last for years after bottling.

The evidence that would suggest the longevity of Finger Lakes wine is empirical. Enthusiasts have had access to older wines during a variety of special events or tastings at individual wineries. Some local restaurants, such as the Village Tavern in Hammondsport, offer a variety of older Finger Lakes wines on their wine lists. Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes editor of the website New York Cork Report, recently ordered a bottle of 1994 Hermann Wiemer Dry Riesling from the Village Tavern. “I actually think that wine was better at 15 years than it must have been in its youth.” Dawson says. “Of course that’s rare, but I’d say the top producers have been making age-worthy wines for some time now. It just requires a patient consumer to figure that out.”

Last summer, while attending a small event at Dr. Frank’s winery on Keuka Lake, I experienced firsthand a dramatic example of the potential to age Finger Lakes wine. Fred Frank, the winery’s owner, poured the assembled group over 10 rieslings, ranging from the most recent release, 2008, back to 1985. As we tasted the selected years in reverse chronological order, the group noted the transformation of the riesling from its well-known apple and citrus components to complex flavors like caramel, honey, petrol, and herbs. All the wines back to 1987 were in great shape. Only the 1985 with a compromised cork tasted past its prime.

Not at all surprised by the ability of Finger Lakes riesling to age 20 years and beyond, Fred Frank relates his winery’s success in aging riesling. “With our old vines and this great soil, we’ve demonstrated time and time again that our riesling can age well. Our cellar goes back to 1962, and in cases where the cork has held up these older wines can still show beautifully.” Frank thinks that the natural acidity in Finger Lakes wine is the key ingredient to aging.

While local observers may agree that riesling and other whites from the Finger Lakes have the potential to last a few years in the bottle, the longevity of reds is a bit more controversial. Currently, regard for red wines from the Finger Lakes lags behind the strong reputation of the whites, with most national critics pointing to uneven ripening and depth of flavors in varieties such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and even pinot noir. Despite these general doubts, the enhanced quality shown by some producers in recent vintages is bringing hope that Finger Lakes reds have something to show with a little aging.

Morten Hallgren, whose Ravines winery has won critical acclaim for its red wine, believes that the Finger Lakes is well suited for aging reds. “It’s a common misconception that age-ability is linked to big, powerful wines from hot areas. Actually, Europe shows that it comes from balance, which is found in cooler regions. All of my red wines dating back to ’02 are still doing well and most haven’t even peaked yet. Even in cooler vintages the wines keep developing years later.”

In the world of wine, aging is presented as a complicated and sometimes expensive issue, with many of the most “age-worthy” European or Californian wines seling for hundreds of dollars upon release. For the casual wine drinker, a few conversations and a little experimentation can yield some fun results without too much investment or pretense. If you have a favorite Finger Lakes producer, ask the tasting room staff which wines the winemaker has had success in aging. If you have an absolute favorite Finger Lakes wine and typically buy quite a bit of it, dedicate yourself to placing a bottle or two in reserve and watch your collection grow.

It’s enjoyable to open the newest bottle of a certain wine during a get-together, followed by an older version of the same wine. A little comparison of new and old brings some discussion-worthy results. The older wine will often be different, sometimes a little better, and rarely almost significantly better. It’s entirely possible that the wine in question will be past its prime or nearly spoiled, which might be disappointing but still interesting. To know the limitations of a certain wine can add to one’s appreciation and knowledge of a favorite beverage.

Like consumers, winemakers are constantly learning more about aging wines. Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run and a 20-year veteran of the Finger Lakes, believes that most Finger Lakes reds and whites can age for several years as a rule. Yet, even he has been surprised at the discovery of a forgotten wine: “A few months ago I came across a few bottles of 10-year-old Fox Run Reserve Chardonnay that had been part of a cork trial. My instinct was to dump them, but the wine turned out to be in fantastic shape, with very appealing toast, tree fruit and nuts aromas and a great slippery texture… that was a seriously good wine.”

A Few Tips for Aging Wine
• Store the wine away from direct sources of light (preferably in complete dark).
• Keep the wine in a cool, moist place like a basement corner (55-65 degrees, over 60 percent humidity).
• If you’re opening a red more than a few years old, learn how to decant.
• Unless you’re spending big money on wine, don’t spend hundreds of dollars on wine cooling units and other appliances.
• Avoid vibrations.

by Jason Feulner
Jason Feulner lives in Syracuse and is the Finger Lakes Correspondent for the New York Cork Report.

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