Old Is Good

People have been thinking, writing, and talking about wine for more than 2,000 yearsyou'd think we would have reached agreement on at least the basics. But controversies continue to simmer. Is a hint of oak the crowning touch of a great wine or a betrayal of the character of the grapes? Are single-varietal, single-vineyard wines the highest expression of the winemaker's art, or is artful blending the true mark of a master vintner? For many years, it was an article of faith that properly aged wines were superior to young ones. But as quality wine-grape cultivation has spread round the world since World War II, this axiom of old-time wine wisdom has slowly been eroded until today it's no longer flat heresy to say wine should be drunk early. In fact, drink-it-now is threatening to harden into dogma in its turn. This is unfortunate, because age-vs.-youth isn't really the issue. Some wines need to spend a long time in the bottle, because they're so laden with raspy tannins (from long exposure to grape skins) that they're barely fit to drink before some tannins have mellowed or settled out. Acidity, too, mellows over time, but also helps keep a wine fresh and unspoiled. Some grape varieties just seem to benefit from aging, while others just don'ttannic, acidic, or not. In the old days, it was a truism that great Burgundies could be aged for years, if not decades. Unfortunately, there is so very little real Burgundy of any description, worthy or not, it hardly gets a chance to age. So Burgundy fans have changed their tune: Like the fox who couldn't get the grapes, they now aver that that young Burgundy's not so bad, after allthat in fact, Burgundy makers now deliberately craft their wine to be drunk young. Since young big-name Burgundies, even from lesser-known bottlers, start at $70 to $90, we usually have to take their word for it. But recently the drink-it-young mantra has jumped the Atlantic and settled down comfortably over the one place in the New World where Burgundy's glory, the pinot noir grape, does as well as on its home turf: Oregon's Willamette Valley. Now, it may suit California pinot noir producers to parrot the formula. In my experience, I've learned I might as well drink California pinot young, because it's not going anywhere but downhill. But in the Willamette Valley, properly made pinot noir doesn't just benefit from aging, it positively demands it. Last year, I shared a bottle of 1988 Rex Hill pinot that was as noble as anything I've ever tasted from Burgundy. Just this week, a long-cellared '94 Erath tasted better than it ever has, and even a clearly over-the-hill '83 Argyle was more interesting than a round of rowdy high-end '99 and '00 Burgundies tasted at a recent four-hour demo dinner. So when your wine-buff friends tell you to drink your Oregon pinot while it's young, robust, and fruity, don't argue; just head for your wine shop and start stocking up on some of the stunning Oregon vintages of the last three or four years. These wines are not cheap ($30 a bottle is not unusual), but they're as cheap as they ever are going to be, and in about five to 10 years, the best of them will stand up to those $450 Clos de Vougeot or Grands Ech麡ux you read about in Parker. Or at least you'll think so. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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