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Contents of this issue of
The Poor Man's Guide to Fine Wine

  • Backfilling: What to watch out for when buying older wines
  • The Poor Man's Guide's Wine Reviews

Backfilling: What to watch out for when buying older wines

The last couple issues of the Poor Man's Guide to Fine Wine have included articles on how to start a wine cellar on a budget. This article follows in the same vein but can be applied to buying older wines for current drinking that you don't intend to cellar any longer.

Some wines improve with age if stored properly. The absolute ideal way to experience older wines is to buy them on first release, cellar them in your own temperature controlled cellar or storage unit and then drink them many years down the road. However, this requires a temperature controlled storage space and time, lots of it! Many of us don't have the patience for this. Particularly when we are new to wine and want to find out what all the fuss is about regarding older mature wines. So how can we experience the pleasure of a perfectly mature bottle of wine without cellaring it ourselves for 10+ years (or 20 or 30 or… you get the picture)?

The problem here lies in the fact that wine is a perishable product. Most wines require a very tightly controlled environment to age gracefully. The importance of storage cannot be overstated. Higher temperatures and wide temperature fluctuations will kill a bottle of wine faster than most people realize. While wines at 60 degrees year-round might age a tad faster and less gracefully than a wine at 55 degrees (or 50 degrees for that matter, some of the underground cellars in Europe are fridgid!) this is kinda splitting hairs and most wines will do just fine under any of these conditions. The problems arise when temperatures start creeping higher. A bottle of wine sitting on a shelf during the summer months and reaching the 70's or, gasp!, 80's will deteriorate VERY quickly.

So herein lies the problem of buying older wines, how can you trust what is in the bottle if you haven't stored it yourself? Cellaring the wine yourself is the only foolproof way to know the exact provenance of any given bottle. So when we buy older vintages to backfill our cellar or for current consumption, how can we trust that what is in the bottle has withstood the ravages of time well? The honest answer is that we can't!

Now, if you are buying older vintages from a wine shop, that wine may have come from any one of many places. If it is only a year old (after release) or up to several years, it may simply have sat on the retailer's store shelves or back warehouse all that time. This may be ok if the shop and its storage facilities are well temperature controlled, but regrettably most are not. Go into most fine wine shops in the middle of summer and you'll find that it is comfortable but definitely not cold inside. It SHOULD be cold. If you spend mucho bucks on a bottle of wine that is a few years ago you want to know that it hasn't sat upright on a shelf at 75 degrees for several summers, right?! Even a year after release a bottle may have deteriorated significantly if it has sat on a shops shelf the whole time. If you really want to know, ask. Ask them to see their storage facility. Even this doesn't guarantee a sound bottle, but you might be able to narrow down the local shops that seem to take better care of their inventory.

Another option is that the wine has been bought from a private cellar. You'll find that almost any shop or auction house that sells wine from a private cellar will say "from a private temperature controlled cellar". While this may be true in some cases, it is by far a guarantee of good provenance. Of course they are going to say that. It isn't like they are going to say "from some guy's closet that fluctuates in temperature dramatically throughout the year, buyer beware!" Even if the seller had the wine in a good cellar when they sold the wine, that isn't a guarantee that it sat in that same cellar all the years he/she owned the wine, or even that they are the original owners. With very old wines, the bottles may have changed hands several times during their lifetimes. Some customers are fooled by the fact that a retailer keeps their better old bottles in a temperature controlled storage room or closet. It gives the outward appearance of a well cared for bottle. However, for all you know they bought that bottle a week ago from someone who stored it poorly for 20 years! Just because it is in a good cellar now doesn't mean that it has been in one its whole life.

Each wine retailer is different. Buy around and you may find that older bottles from one retailer are consistently shot and from another are usually fine. Stick to the retailers you trust and who have a track record for dealing in older vintages.

Occasionally, importers or wine producers will release old stocks of wine that have sat in warehouse for years or even sat in the original producer's cellars. These late release wines can sometimes be a great deal. If you can believe the importer that they were in temperature control or the original cellars until recently, then their provenance may be about as good as you can get without cellaring them yourself.

Also, remember that there are some wines that normally are cellared for many years before release. So the wine you see on the shelves today may be a current release and in perfect condition. Examples of these include wines that traditionally have very long aging regimens. Gran Reserva Riojas from Spain, Madeiras, Tawny and Colheita Ports and other styles are traditionally aged a long time in barrel before even being bottled. The current release vintages for traditional producers may be 10 years or more behind the current year. The oldest Madeira's and Ports may be much older than that. Champagnes also tend to be aged in bottle a long time before release so it is not uncommon to see current release vintage Champagnes with 6 to 15 years of age on them. So do a little homework or ask your retailer when the wine in question was released.

Now that you understand some of the pitfalls of buying older wine, here are a few tips on how to spot problem bottles. None of these are fool proof, but may help you to avoid obviously mistreated bottles:

Bottle Leakage: Normally, a cork is a pretty good barrier to wine leaking out of a bottle. However, at higher temperature the wine inside expands and can leak around or through the cork. Oftentimes, bottles which have been subject to high temperatures or big temperature fluctuations will show signs of leakage. Take a look at the bottle. Note any sticky white or red material coming out from under the capsule or dripping down the side of the bottle. Even if it has been wiped off you can sometimes see streaks on the bottle or label of wine which dripped down the side. This is not foolproof. Some bottles can leak even without bad temperature treatment. In particular, some producers fill their bottles very high and there may be a small amount of leakage at the time of bottling. I've had some bottles (older JJ Prum Rieslings and Leroy Burgundies, for example) that had subtle signs of leakage yet the wine inside was perfectly sound. However, be wary of bottles with obvious and particularly excessive signs of leakage.

Capsules: This goes along with leakage. Most young wines will have capsules that are loose enough that you can spin them a bit with gentle pressure. If there has been leakage of wine, the capsule gets "glued" in place. Again, not food proof, but another thing to look for.

Protruding or Sunken Corks: As wine expands with heat, it can both cause leakage and push the cork up in the neck. Very little else does this. If you see a cork which is pushing up above the top of the bottle significantly, raising up the capsule, be very wary! Less commonly, with some very old bottles you can see corks which have sunk or even fallen completely into the wine! Oftentimes this is due to the wine being stored upright and the cork drying out.

Ullage: Ullage is a term for the level of wine in a bottle. While different producers tend to fill the bottle differently, wine is generally filled up into the neck of the bottle, close to the bottom of the cork. In most conditions, even with good cellaring, the level of wine in the bottle will slowly drop a bit. However, wines which have leaked significantly or which have been stored at high temperatures and low humidity may evaporate or leak faster. A very low ullage can be a concerning sign for a mistreated wine. The older the wine, the more ullage can be acceptable but be wary of anything that looks excessive, particularly if there are other signs of a heat damaged bottle.

In conclusion, don't buy past vintages without thinking and paying attention to the bottle in question. Ask your retailer about the provenance of the bottle, where it came from, how it was stored, when it was released, how it got to them, etc. Examine the bottle for evidence of heat damage. All this being said, no matter what you do, some older wines you buy will be shot. That is just one of the risks inherent to buying older bottles. To paraphrase a famous saying "There are no great old wines, only great old bottles." In other words, two bottles of the same old wine may be dramatically different, one dead from mistreatment during its long life and the other pristine.

The Poor Man's Guide's
Wine Reviews

Wine Ratings Explained:
Zero Stars A wine I don't particularly recommend.

One Star
Well made, simple and tasty wines that I recommend.

Two Stars
Excellent quality. Worth an extra effort to search out and enjoy.

Three Stars
Outstanding wine of the highest caliber.
Either a wine that is close to deserving a higher score or a wine that may not be showing that much but with the potential to move up in quality with further aging. A young wine that may be closed up or shows potential for significant improvement. Assuming it opens and improves with additional age, it may merit a higher rating.
??? Flawed bottles or wines that are difficult to assess for any number of reasons. Judgement reserved.

Sparkling Wines:

Bele Casel Prosecco
Montello e colli Asolani
Spumante Extra Dry
Drink Now-2012 $12
Bright honeydew melon and salty chalk aromas open up the door to a fresh, vibrant Prosecco with just the barest hint of sweetness. Lively and fun, simply and refreshing. One Star.

Paul Berthelot a Dizy
Champagne Rosé Brut
Drink Now-2025 $50
Berthelot is an excellent smaller producer from Dizy in Champagne. His excellent non-vintage Brut is an excellent value as well. The Rosé is a bit harder to find but definitely worth the search!

Scrumptious sweet, but crisp ripe strawberries, chalk and intense oyster shell aromas grace this nose of this seductive Rosé. This balances the tightrope between delightfully sweet fruit yet with a chalky minerality that keeps it full, powerful and focused. I really like this. I'm not always a huge fan of Ros´ Champagne as I can find many are a bit disjointed. This one seems wonderfully poised and balanced and reminds me a bit of the Henri Billiot, one of my favorites. Two Stars Plus.

Sorelle Bronca Particella 68
Prosecco di Valdobbiadene
Extra Dry
Drink Now-2012 $15
A fresh, fun Prosecco but without the austerity and dryness of the really traditional examples. There is a bit more sweetness here that gives it a lusciousness, a creaminess. Its delish and a fun sparkler to start an evening. One Star Plus.

White Wines:

Domaine Bachelet
Bourgogne Aligoté 2007
Drink Now-2017 $20
Bachelet is an outstanding producer of pure, seductive red Burgundies from Gevrey. However, his humble Bourgogne Aligoté white can be quite seductive too. The "lowly" Aligoté grape often maligned but this shows how good it can be in the right hands.

Pure and clean, fresh cut hay, stones, big white ones and pit fruits. This dry and austere wine has a fresh, vibrant personality, kinda like eating a grapefruit and chewing on the seeds. The texture has a grain to it, like salt, tannin and chalk, giving it a great palate presence and personality. Very interesting stuff. Two Stars.

Annie et Philippe Bornard Côtes du Jura
Les Chassagnes Lieu Dit Savagnin 2005
Drink Now-2020 $25
I'm a big fan of oxidative-styled Jura wines, particularly those with a hefty dose of Savagnin. Their complexity and kinky aromatics is enough to make my head swoon. I was hoping for great things but was a bit disappointed with this. It started out a bit musty but that blew off. However, there was just a hint of nutty oxidation with some anise and celery seed spice but these were quite subtle and there was a complete dearth of the richer, umami notes I was hoping for. This is quite simple, even a bit dilute. It is ok, and very drinkable, it just pales in comparison to its better Côtes du Jura cousins. One Star.

Bodegas Dios Baco Amontillado Zero Stars Drink Now-Whenever $24
I love Sherry but I rarely buy it from Whole Foods. I needed some to cook with so I bought this. It is the most expensive Sherry Whole Foods here caries. I was hoping it would be passable. I was wrong. This is very untraditional for an Amontillado as it is quite sweet and not balanced. A good Sherry, even the sweeter ones have a vibrant acidity to it that gives them a tang and bite to keep them fresh and present on the palate. This seemed flabby and cloying. Yes, it had some nutty, rich butterscotchy aromatics that were pleasant, but overall I was very underwhelmed and didn't really want to drink it. I almost didn't use it for cooking! If you want to cook with Sherry and you have to buy at Whole Foods, stick to the cheap domestic fake "Sherry". Its better than this! Zero Stars.

Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle
Spätlese 2008
Drink Now-2038 $50
This barely makes the under $50 rule for the Poor Man's Guide but boy is it good! Dönnhoff is just about worth the splurge in any vintage and Hermannshöhle is often favorite vineyard. It combines complexity with a refinement and finesse that is breathtaking.

This 08 presents a loving, caressing and sexy baked apple, mint, salt flats and Champagne chalk mine-like complexity. Luscious and incredibly gulpable, yet elegant, silky and deserving of slowly savoring over hours. The texture here is one of the things that really sets it apart. It has relief, like a silky pulverized granite and chalk dust. This is long on the finish and elegant and restrained. In 08 it is not quite as big and sweet as some vintages but this is a real spä:tlese and I love it. Can you tell? Two Stars Plus.

Bodegas Hidalgo
Manzanilla La Gitana
Drink Now-2012 $12
Zesty, citrus and nuts, this is bright and crisp yet has an almost Alsatian waxiness to the texture with a perfumed inner mouth perfume of nuts and waxy flowers. Very pretty if a bit simple. One Star.

Monte Gudello Airén
Vino de la Tierra de Castilla
Drink Now-2012 $9
This inexpensive white from Spain is crackling with freshness, bitter grapefruit seed and pith and bright grassiness. This is almost Vinho Verde-like in its crispness and herbaceousness. The bitter ting on the finnish is perfect for washing down salty appetizers. One Star.

Eric Morgat Savennières
L'Enclos 2006
Zero Stars? Drink Now-2012 $20
I had heard good things about this relative newcomer to the ranks of Savennières. I had high hopes. This failed me. Maybe its the ripe vintage? The aromas were much more ripe than most Savs, with tropical melon and tangerine. The mouth was strange. Ripe, almost over-ripe actually with an alcoholic heat yet at the same time has an under-ripe bitter edge to the acid and a drying, awkward finish. The only thing I can think is that the grape sorting and/or harvest time poor. Seems to be the a ripe vintage with average or poor winemaking. While a great producer could pull off a compelling wine in 06, this is practically flawed. I'm willing to give Morgat another chance but based on this bottle I am far from convinced. Zero Stars?

Red Wines:

Bara Bouzy Rouge
Drink Now-2030 $50
Paul Bara is a wonderful small producer of Champagne. However, this Champagne is a bit different. Its red for one, and it doesn't have bubbles! Yes, its a dry, still red wine from Champagne. Not much of this is made anymore and is therefore somewhat of a curiosity. While you may never run into a bottle of this, I present it as just that, a curiosity that is quite unique and beautiful in its own way. You may think it would have some similarities with red Burgundy given that it is 100% Pinot Noir and you'd be right. But this Pinot Noir is grown much further north than Burgundy, in the much cooler Champange region of Bouzy. If you are looking for big, ripe, California Pinot Noir, stay far away! This is the antithesis to that! Focused, shimmering in its purity and drive, this has nothing ripe or fat about it. Instead, it shows off what Champagne does best, bright, focused acidity and vibrant minerality that run the length of the wine. This is even more lean and focused than many Burgs and therefore will have a limited audience. Some drinkers of steroid fueled, ripe wines think Burgundy is thin and dilute, they will be doubly disappointed by this. For me, this is a unique and beautiful expression of its place. Its not supposed to taste just like Burgundy, much less California or Oregon Pinot Noir. It is what it is and that is beautiful. Take it or leave it. I don't have that much experience with these but I suspect this will last a long time. I am going to hold on to my sole remaining bottle for a good many years. Any score for a wine such as this would be rather controversial but for me its at least two stars now and I could see this being three stars in several years time.

Paolo Bea
Montefalco Rosso 2003
Drink Now-2023 $40
Can anyone in Europe make a balanced, complete wine in such a hot, "global warming" year like 2003? Bea can! This traditional producer in Italy is under most people's radar but is making stunning stuff. For an even better treat, try his stunning Sagrantino.

My immediate thoughts when sticking my nose in the glass was that this thing is alive! Like a living, organic loamy soil, rich, deep and complex with igneous rocks crushed into it. This is a passionate wine, deep and seductive. Very Italian. Yes, there is serious ripeness here but it stays perfectly balanced and focused, it just makes it more forward and seductive. There remains a great, solid core of stone, earth and meat. This is flat out great stuff! Three Stars.

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes-du-Rhone 2007 Drink Now-2017 $30
After reading this review, take a look at the Janasse CdR below. These two Cotes-du-Rhone illustrate what I like and hate about the southern Rhône. The modern style emphasizes jammy, ultra-ripe fruit that I find boring and unbalanced. Beaucastel on the other hand is very traditional. There is plenty of balance to the complex ripe fruit and in 07 is a great wine. There is an enticing earthy spice to the ripe raspberry and brambly blackberry which is young and primary but pure and beautiful. Full bodied, velvety with ample spice to the fruit and a thorny rose bush for complexity. This gets me very excited to try the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape from 07! Two Stars.

Giacosa Barbera d'Alba 2007 Drink Now-2020 $25
Giacosa is a brilliant traditional producer from Piedmont, one of the best in the world. While his Barolo and Barbaresco have reached stratospheric prices, the Barberas are still a relative bargain. He makes a basic Barbera as well as one from the Falletto vineyard. This is the former.

Jammy (in a good way, not an over-ripe, unbalanced way) berries, spicy herbs, like rosemary and savory, and a deep smokey earthiness. Rich and heady yet perfectly balanced. Ripe, juicy grape and blueberry is balanced by cranberry-like acidity. Delicious and even better with food. Two Stars.

Domaine de la Janasse
Terre d'Argile 2007
Côtes du Rhône Villages
? Drink Now-2017 $18
Janasse is a well respected southern Rhône producer who makes very highly rated Chateauneuf-du-Pape and 2007 is a "vintage of the century" for the region. But this wine just couldn't really convince me, primarily for stylistic reasons. I am just not down with the way the more modern producers are headed with these wines, emphasizing the ultra-ripe, jammy Grenache fruit. This wine is very ripe, jammy even. There is enough brambly, wild Provençal herbs in the aroma to remind you we are in the southern Rhône. But the flavors are decidedly modern, ripe and forward, lacking real depth and real distinction. If it is what you are looking for, this excels at ripe, fat fruit. In that respect it is quite dense and palate staining. If you just want power, fruit and modern flash, you could give this two stars. But it is barely One Star to my taste.

Metiusco Salento Rosso
Palama 2004
Drink Now-2014 $15
This brambly Italian red shows off aromatic herbs, oregano, grape juice and black pepper and just screams for a red pasta sauce. There is some dark fruit to the flavors but the overall sense of this is an airy and fresh red wine with lifted red fruits. Almost Chianti-like but with excellent finesse for such a cheap wine. An excellent pizza and pasta night wine. One Star Plus.

Jean-Marc & Hugues Pavelot Savigny-Les-Beaune
Dominode 2007
Drink 2012-2022 $40
2007 is turning out to be a very nice vintage for red Burgundy but tends to offer wines that are fruity and fresh, juicy and seductive, that seem to be better for nearer term consumption. However, Pavelot is a traditionalist producer who makes wines to age. His wines are some of the best of Savigny and the Dominode is his most famous vineyard, producing serious, dark and masculine wines.

This young wine shows off a smokey and meaty personality with an almost igneous minerality. It is very young and tight, wound up and intense. It is quite dense and dark for an 07 but still has a silky, seductive texture. This really took 3 to 5 hours to really be approachable, at first burly and hard but later showing its grace and velvet texture. An excellent wine but will definitely reward extended cellaring. Two Stars.

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