If you store big red wines properly for a decade or five, some will age to perfection, with aromas of roses and flavors of caramel, tea, licorice, nuts, even wild game. Others will just grow old, fruit gone, bitter tannin remaining.
What accounts for that?
In the infancy of fine wine in California, the story is famously told, the 1974 cabernet sauvignons were so muscular and tannic they were expected to age for 10, even 20 years.
Within five years they were dying; within 10, they were dead.
In Australia, where fine wine goes back to the 1950s, they learned one lesson early. Aging comes not only from tannin but from the proper balance of tannin, acid and fruit.
Penfolds led the way. Its genius winemaker, Max Schubert, visited France's fabled Bordeaux region in the 1950s and came back to Oz to apply what he had learned to that country's trademark shiraz grape.
Today Penfolds makes a dozen big red wines of shiraz or cabernet sauvignon or a blend of the two. They're famous for how well they age. And so the winery, beginning in 1986, self-published a book called Penfolds: The Rewards of Patience. Republished every five years or so, it's a description of how all of their big reds are aging.
The new edition, just out, is based on a remarkable tasting in 2007 in the Barossa Valley at which Penfolds opened 600 bottles worth more than $1 million and invited independent wine experts from Australia, Singapore, the U.S. and Britain to evaluate them.
They opened, for example, a bottle of their famous Grange Shiraz from every vintage from 1952 through 2006. In the 1952 they found not so much fruit but wonderful flavors of sweet roasted meat and dark chocolate. The 1996, one of their favorites, was "utterly seductive, with crimson plum/black currant/blueberry, dark chocolate and licorice."
In a recent Miami stop, Penfolds reps opened 11 of the same wines for collectors and journalists. What follows are my tasting notes. I don't include prices because the wines no longer are available in most stores -- only from auction houses. And they ain't cheap. The 1990 recently went for $550 a bottle.
From the notes, you can see how well they age. A lot of California wineries could take a lesson.
• 1998 Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon: concentrated flavors of red plums and spicy cinnamon; powerful.
• 1976 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz: red raspberries, bitter chocolate, bacon fat.
• 1998 Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz: concentrated black plums and tar, bitter chocolate, smoky, peppery.
• 2002 Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz: violets and mint, chocolate and cherries, ripe tannins, concentrated, youthful.
• 1967 Penfolds Bin 7 Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz: muted fruit, evolved into subtle aromas and flavors of burnt sugar, licorice, game, truffles.
• 1990 Penfolds Grange Shiraz: powerful but velvety flavors of black plums, mulberries and mocha, lively fruit.
• 1991 Penfolds Grange Shiraz: black pepper and mint, black cherries, concentrated and smooth, lively fruit.
• 1986 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet: fading but still present raspberries, coffee and licorice.
• 1996 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet: still-youthful black currants, anise and
• 1991 Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz: mint, black cherry, black pepper, earth; ready to drink.
• 1990 Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon: black raspberries and black pepper, ripe tannins.