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Whether you want to commemorate a big day or just have a hankering for a different taste, vintage wines are delicious to explore

When my daughter was born in 2016, I asked wine shop owners across Portland (my home city) which Oregon winemaker they might recommend with an eye toward long-term aging. The idea was to keep a case or so on hand, cracking into one bottle on my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, another when she graduates high school, and so on for different milestones throughout her life. I received a broad range of suggestions before ultimately settling on Cameron Wines, whose owner and winemaker, John Paul, is considered one of the state’s best creators of ageable chardonnay and pinot noir. Today, a half case of each sits in my basement, and assuming elementary schools are back in session full force, we’ll be drinking the first bottle come fall 2022.

Vintage wine is nothing new. The practice of aging wine dates back thousands of years, from the ancient catacombs of Rome to the royal courts of Europe, where aged sweet wines like Sauternes and Tokaji reigned. During the Age of Exploration, fortified wine styles like madeira and port became popular for their ability to stand up to long ocean voyages. The modern wine bottle as we know it today was developed in the 18th century in part to promote aging, designed to be laid on its side with a stout cork sealing out the oxygen.

In modern times, vintage wines have become synonymous with wealth and status, the domain of the wealthy collector with a vast cellar of sought-after wines from famous wine regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Napa. But this is just one facet of vintage wine enjoyment; the market for vintage wine is becoming increasingly democratized and accessible as more people, especially newer wine drinkers, get turned on to the remarkable flavors and emotional resonance of drinking wines from yesteryear.

But vintage wine — by which I generally mean wine that is around 20 years old, and sometimes much older — is something anyone can enjoy, and it doesn’t have to cost you thousands of dollars to get started. The most important moments of your life (the birth of your kid, your wedding, a big life change) can be remembered for years to come by setting aside a well-chosen bottle or three.

What’s so special about vintage wine?

“Well-aged wines reveal layers of taste and vision that are not only delicious but fascinating,” say Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, the wife-and-husband writing team who wrote about wine for the Wall Street Journal for more than a decade. (Today they are senior editors at the wine website Grape Collective.) “It’s similar to a person. The 16-year-old version and the 40-year-old version are the same person. The older one should display well-earned wisdom in its maturity while allowing you to sense extra soul that had been underneath the youthful vigor. Well-aged wines show you more of who they really are.”

Okay, but there’s also some science to this. As a beverage, wine is second only to coffee in terms of chemical intricacy. “There are a lot of complex chemical changes that occur in a wine as it ages, involving phenols, alcohol, esters and other volatile compounds,” says the wine writer and author Peter Liem, an expert who specializes in sherry and Champagne. “In terms of what that means for us, this affects color, aroma, and flavor as the wine moves from fresh, primary fruit to a quieter and more secondary evolution that develops with age. It doesn’t always mean that the wine is necessarily better,” writes Liem, adding: “Whether a wine is at its best when it’s young, old, or somewhere in between is often very much a matter of personal preference. But if you do appreciate the character and complexity of mature wine, the only way to achieve that is through time.”

Scientists who study how wine ages (yes, it’s a thing) talk about one important part of this process as “polymerization,” a kind of chemical reaction in which tannins bind together, falling to the bottom of the bottle. This results in less astringency and a mellowing quality. Oxygen plays a role as well: The right amount of oxygen, which comes into a bottle over time through the pores of the cork, helps promote that same mellowing process. Too much oxygen, though, can result in excess oxidation, where a wine ends up turning brown and tasting weird. (Think of what happens to a piece of cut fruit left out on the kitchen counter.) Certain regions and vintages within those regions are particularly prone to oxidation, and there’s no magic formula for determining whether a given wine has aged gracefully in the bottle. That’s why vintage wine sellers with expertise are so valuable to drinkers.

But what’s really special about vintage wine happens at the intersection of a mature bottle and a special moment. “We’re always having people ask us for birth years or anniversaries,” says Dave Gibbs, proprietor at the vintage-focused Augustine Wine Bar in Sherman Oaks, California. Augustine’s collection of vintage bottles numbers in the thousands, and every night it’s got a half dozen or so bottles open by the glass — an extraordinary educational opportunity for anyone looking to experience vintage wine firsthand. Gibbs’ collection makes it possible for him to pull specific years for nearly any request from the 20th century and beyond; if an 1860s Madeira is of interest to you, this is your dream bar, but you’ll also find interesting pours of 1970s California wine or 1980s riesling, starting at around $20 a glass.

Which wines age well?

Some wines are undeniably meant to be drunk immediately: fresh, light wines, “wines of thirst,” pét-nats and piquettes, cheap and cheerful crisp rosés under $20, a bottle of easy-drinking wines (what the French call “glou-glou”) at your local natural wine shop, and so forth. I adore wines in this style, for which there is always a time and place, such as right now (because it’s hot out and I’m thirsty). “The vast majority of wines are meant to be drunk right away,” say Gaiter and Brecher, to which we should all say, “Cheers.”

But there is also a whole world of wine — from toasty Champagne to brooding cabernet to perfumed pinot to complex, reflective chardonnay — that can benefit enormously from a bit of time in the bottle. There are even some wine styles for which it’s recommended to wait at least a decade before opening. Drinking a First Growth Bordeaux or Grands Échezeaux too young, for example, is to commit bibendous infanticide, no matter the Instagram likes.

Certain grapes are especially well known for their complex aging properties. Pinot noir, chardonnay, nebbiolo, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon fall into this category, but this is not a definitive list — grapes like riesling, muscadet, barbera, grenache (in Spain, garnacha) and Nero d’Avola, and many more, are all capable of extraordinary aging in the right hands.

What does vintage wine taste like?

There’s no single answer to this, because the aging process does not override the bedrock characteristics of a wine; rather, aging can make wine morph and change in interesting ways. Nor is aging a guaranteed way to improve any and every wine; some wines actually lose their appeal with age.

But there are some commonalities among aged wines. “Something you can generally count on is that as a wine gets older, the fruit flavors in the wine are going to ‘drop,’” says Gibbs. “The big fruit flavors you might notice right away in a young wine become secondary, tertiary, and other flavors will come forward, especially more earthy, savory flavors.”

How this plays out in a specific bottle goes back to the endless variables and choices made by the winemaker. A bottle of white Burgundy from the Meursault (made with the chardonnay grape), for example, will age differently than a California chardonnay, but both might lose a bit of their lemon chardonnay-like tartness across the decades, replaced by flavors of honey and yellow plum. A pinot noir from Oregon or New Zealand might start with young, brash notes of raspberry and cherry before decaying (pleasurably) into something more like violets, cassis, and the water at the bottom of a flower vase.

Speaking broadly, vintage wine tastes like the wine itself, with an added wrinkle of mystery and quantum complexity. Think of how a nice Sunday braise grows more layered and delicious the longer you let it simmer. It’s an amorphous thing to describe. Even stranger still, there are wine tasting experts and journalists who specialize in “predictive tasting,” or the art of drinking a wine young and making an educated guess as to where it will go in the cellar in another 20 or 30 years.

Where can I try vintage wine?

If you don’t happen to live near Augustine Wine Bar, there’s still hope. Finding vintage wine has never been easier, thanks to our all-internet-everything world, along with a surge in online wine buying during the pandemic. And the stuff has never been more popular, says John Kapon, chairman of the wine auction leader Acker Wines, who tells me his auction house is doing record numbers. “We’ve had just a huge year,” says Kapon. “The market for vintage wine is up 20 to 30 percent.” If you’re fortunate enough in this life to be looking to purchase bottles of the world’s rarest, most expensive wines, Kapon’s auctions with Acker are your playground. (At one recent auction, a three-bottle collection of 2001 Domaine Romanée Conti sold for a cool $49,600.)

For the rest of us, approachably priced vintage wines have never been easier to obtain. Online sellers, such as Max Kogod of LA’s Kogod Wine Merchant, offer those interested in trying vintage wine a way to do it as easily as buying anything else these days; you can even search by specific vintage on Kogod’s website, which he says accounts for about 40 percent of his total sales. I recently scored a 1990 Au Bon Climat chardonnay from him for less than $100, and it made for lovely spousal birthday drinking, made all the more special by the recent passing of Au Bon Climat’s visionary founder, Jim Clendenen.

At Parcelle Wine on West 58th Street in Manhattan, vintage wine is available over the counter as well as from its online store. Around 25 percent of what founder Grant Reynolds sells is vintage, and he prides himself on creating a vintage wine program with a broad range of accessibility; one needn’t be armed with a mortgage payment’s worth of cash in order to purchase something interesting. “There’s a barrier to entry that can be challenging for some consumers,” Reynolds says, “but while we feature some really classic older wines, we’re also always on the hunt for ones that are more approachable to a wider audience.” This means branching out from the most commonly sought-after vintage wine regions, like Barolo or Burgundy, and instead highlighting wines from lesser-known regions for vintage, like Chianti. “Chianti with age is really amazing,” Reynolds tells me. “It’s a grape whose flavors evolve into something better and really interesting with time, and in the bottle it’s pretty resilient. We find a lot of value in those wines.”

There are even some retailers who sell almost nothing but vintage wine. One is Walker Wine Company, whose founder, Walker Strangis, has worked across a range of procurement methods — from estate sales to auctions to private collections — to develop an enviable list of vintage wines that are sold directly to consumers. You can spend thousands of dollars on his website on back vintages of Raveneau (Chablis), Quintarelli (Valpolicella) or Krug (Champagne), or get your feet wet for $50 on a 20-year-old bottle of Penner Ash (Oregon pinot). If shopping for a birth-year celebration bottle (your own or someone else’s) sounds like fun, Walker Wines has a broad selection of wines from nearly every year of the past 50 years for around $100.

What if I want to age wine myself?

If you’re looking to spend $100,000 on a custom-designed, temperature-controlled wine cellar for your cases of La Tâche, this isn’t really the article for you. (Invite me over, though. Seriously.) For the rest of us, commonsense steps can be employed to make a home wine aging situation “good enough” to get you started.

A cool, damp basement is your friend. Something around 55 degrees with a little ambient humidity is perfect. If the basement in your friend’s grandma’s house is where you used to go hide out during the hot summer months, that would be ideal. Heat can warp wine both young and old, and dry conditions can crack your cork.

Try a dedicated wine fridge, which can run between $300 and $5,000, with endless configurations and tweakability.

A wine rack works too. No matter where you put your wine, it should be aged on its side. Never age wine standing upright; only place aged wine upright a few days before you plan on drinking it. These racks from Ikea are cheap and will work just fine to get you started, but again, this is a hobby where you can spend thousands of dollars on storage solutions and high-end wine fridges, so consider the Ikea rack as a starting point.

Going big? Consider a wine storage company. These dedicated offsite facilities offer temperature-controlled storage for a monthly fee; often they’re home to communities of other wine lovers, and have small events where you get to try other people’s interesting stuff. You might meet a generous wine geek who will let you try something amazing.

How long do I have to wait for a wine to age?

This is different for each individual wine. If you’re buying wine on the aftermarket, 20 years is a good benchmark. For wines you’re aging yourself, a shorter period — 10 years, maybe, or even five — can be long enough to result in a profound change. Some wine thinkers refer to this as “resting” a wine, giving it a few years to develop, as opposed to decades. Not surprisingly, the winemakers themselves have strong opinions on this topic. Martha Stoumen, whose namesake wine label is based in Northern California, released her first vintage in 2014. “When I open a bottle of 2014 Venturi Vineyard Carignan every other year or so, I’m floored by what I taste,” she tells me. “So far this light-bodied, naturally fermented, low-sulfite wine only has gotten better with time.” Joe Reynoso of Crescere Wines in Napa reports something similar; he’s been growing grapes in Napa for the better part of 30 years, but began bottling his own wines in 2016. “It’s my job to check in on these wines,” Reynoso says, “and our 2016 cabernet sauvignon has not yet begun to plateau. Different wines have different shapes and curves, if you can picture it. Our wines taste good now, but that 2016 will be better in three years, and even better in five. It tastes better every time we drink it.”

Ultimately that’s the power of vintage wine: it has the capacity to make us look back and ahead, to fuse the joys of life with the joys of wine in a meaningful, resonant way. What’s in the bottle will change and grow across the years, just like you. Nothing else could possibly taste as sweet.

Jordan Michelman is a 2020 James Beard Award winner for journalism and a 2020 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards shortlist in the Emerging Wine Writer category.

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