Generally, people don’t like to ingest things that are old. An aged biscuit or a venerable salad doesn’t sound so hot, for obvious reasons. But a few drinks, like Scotch and wine, go through a magical transformation as the years pass. Simplicity gives way to complexity; freshness to a kind of brooding, hard-won wisdom.
Getting seriously into wine is difficult if you’ve never tasted a great bottle with some real age on it — you have no idea of the range of tastes and smells that are possible. It would be like going through life talking only to people under 21: Enthusiasm and energy may abound, but they just haven’t been around long enough to know the score.
This was all brought home to me again at a tasting of a wine called Solaia earlier this month at New York’s Le Cirque restaurant. Piero Antinori, the dapper and aristocratic head of one of Italy’s oldest family-owned wine companies (Marchese Antinori got started in 1385), generously poured eight vintages of Solaia. This label is considered a “Super Tuscan,” a name for wines that, starting in the 1970s, broke the traditional rules dictating which grapes can go into the region’s reds. Solaia is usually made mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese. The first vintage was 1978, making this year its 30th anniversary.
The younger Solaia vintages that Antinori brought — 1994, 1999, 2001, 2005 — had all the charms you might want: dark purple color, heady tannins, sweet fruit flavors, complexity, and structure. But it was the two oldest wines I kept coming back to. The 1985, a legendary year for Tuscan wine, had a beguiling nose of curry — there’s no other way to describe the salty, exotic smell that drew me to it — but on the palate, it was all strawberries and spice, perfectly harmonious and supple.
Then there was the 1978. In the glass, it was getting the clear rim typical of older wines, along with a gentle brick color. (Reds get browner as they age.) The nose was all smoke, leather, and cedar, a not uncommon smell in fine older wines, but those descriptors don’t do it justice: It’s a heavenly thing to inhale. Though the obvious fruit and sweetness had faded, a gentle bell-pepper note remained, and the flavors were woven together in a mysterious way, with one flowing into the other unpredictably.
The wine’s freshness is almost gone now, and the tannins dried my mouth a bit on the finish. But the 1978 was still the wine I brought to the table to drink with my veal chop during the special lunch that Le Cirque served — it was simply the most interesting one in the bunch. It had the flaws of age, but it also had the best story to tell.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.