A 2004 Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Noir paired well with a roast chicken with sage-apple stuffing.

A 2004 Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Noir paired well with a roast chicken with sage-apple stuffing.

La Dolce Vita: Timing is key to enjoying an older wine

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We once spent a week wandering around Venice, a remarkable place if there ever was one. And I couldn’t shake the thought that here we were, in a city that peaked about 500 years ago. It’s been pretty much all downhill since, and it’s still a beautiful, fascinating and extraordinary attraction for millions of visitors each year.

So, if a city can still hold its appeal long after its “best before” date, can wine? It was a question that occurred to me on a recent Saturday when I opened a bottle of Pinot Noir to enjoy with our roast chicken with sage-apple stuffing.

The wine was a 2004 Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Noir. I had purchased it, and a few other bottles, on a visit to the Kelowna winery a few years ago when a display of Library Release wines caught my attention.

To be clear, when I purchased these wines there was a drink now message on the shelf. But, me being me, I like to push out the envelope on occasion, so I let them age for a few years longer.

When I opened that first bottle from 2004, it was immediately apparent that the wine had peaked earlier and now was on its downslide. Make no mistake, this was not a wine that had gone bad, and there’s a huge difference. A corked wine, or one that has been badly stored or been subjected to high temperatures, is going to taste bad. This Pinot Noir was in no way bad. But it was lacking in tannins and had none of the bright fruitiness that one associates with a good Pinot Noir.

And yet, it was entirely drinkable. It paired well with the roast turkey dinner, stuffing, potatoes, gravy and roasted broccoli. But we agreed that 2004 would have been a much better experience a couple of years ago.

On the next evening, we settled in with turkey and stuffing sandwiches to watch some episodes of our latest obsession, The Good Wife, starring the wonderful Julianna Margulies. To wash our sammies down I brought up a bottle of 2006 Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Noir. My comment on the first sip was, “This is much fresher tasting than the ’04,” and Angela concurred. But wine is funny stuff. Within minutes it had begun to flatten out and our second glass was even more past the “best before” than the ’04. The exposure to air quickly dissipated the liveliness of the wine and accentuated its lack of tannins.

On a roll now, a few evenings later we had a cheese plate and guacamole ready for a quick and easy dinner, but I stuck with the Pinot Noir theme. This time my selection was from D’Angelo Estate Winery in Naramata. We are regular visitors to the winery and I know Sal, the owner, well enough to appreciate that he simply doesn’t release his red wines until he believes they are ready to drink. It isn’t unusual to find wines that are five years or older on the tasting shop’s shelves.

This bottle was from 2005 and it proved to have held up better than either of the Mission Hill vintages. Brighter and fruitier with more tannins and structure, Sal D’Angelo’s effort stood out. Even so, I’m guessing that it was probably better six months ago and will probably less enjoyable six months from now.

So what do learn from this little experiment? Not much, as a matter of fact, because vintages can very dramatically, both in taste and age-worthiness. The temperatures as the fruit ripens have a huge impact, as does the sweetness and acidity of the grapes at harvest. Winemaking techniques have a large impact, too. Without being familiar with how a given wine is tasting upon its release and then testing it regularly every six to 12 months after, it’s pretty much a crapshoot when it comes to opening a bottle that is even five years old.

It’s good to know, however, that like Venice, a wine that is past its prime can still offer a very pleasant experience.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance. His website, www.lorneeckersley.com, features a collection of columns, stories and photographs about wine, beer and spirits, food, travel and arts.