California Pinot Put to the Ageworthy Test

By Stephen Eliot

California wines do not age; or so we have been hearing for years. It has become a hoary and hackneyed cliché that raises the dander of those of us who know better, yet despite being discredited time and again, it is a resilient claim that just never seems to go away.

I will not disagree with those who argue that most wine made today, regardless of where it is from, is as good in its youth as it ever will be, but “most” is not “all”, and the rather more exclusive realm of fine wine is governed by rules of its own. When teaching, I had a learned and experienced colleague who accepted as axiomatic that most any wine older than four or five years was “brown” wine whose integrity had been lost to age. I have also known those who insisted drinking their wines well past what I would regard their expiration dates. I suppose in the end that it is best to adopt a to-each-his-own attitude about the aging of wines and perhaps embrace the less controversial credo that, as some have suggested, aged wine is simply different rather than better.

But for me there are too many instances that, when pouring a well-cellared wine that is on in its years, the idea of “better” is hard to refute. And, “better” often comes in the guise of fine older California offerings that supposedly lacked the staying power and potential to improve.

It is, of course, most usually California Cabernet Sauvignon that proves its mettle as an ageworthy wine, and there are storied tastings enough to prove that the local version not only has the stamina to last but can achieve great beauty and interest with time. The benefits of aging, however, are not limited to big tannic reds, and wines of structure and balance will surprise when allowed the chance to sit for a few years.

That point, and the real point of this posting, was driven home the past couple of weeks when, at Chez Eliot, we opted to open a half-dozen somewhat older West Coast Pinots with our holiday dinners. The wines ranged from ten to fifteen years in age, and, with but a single exception, all were in very fine shape. Some, like the sleek 2001 Lynmar Quail Hill and the velvety 2003 Testarossa Bien Nacido bottling had clearly reached their peaks, while others such as the 2001 Rochioli Estate were surprisingly vital and capable of further growth.

Now, I would not for a second make the claim that good Pinot needs a decade of keeping before showing its best, but most every one that we opened over a succession of nights was complex and compelling stuff that offered something that younger versions could not. They were met by knowing smiles from the old hands at the table and by exclamations of surprise from those whose interest in wine was of a more casual sort, and they reminded again that there are reasons to hide a few good bottles away… even those that might come from California.


 

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