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Plus a few $25-or-less wines that will make you look like a genius in 10 years.
For several years, one of my many tasks at this magazine was as the gatekeeper of the considerable wine collection we amassed each year at the conclusion of our much-missed Vancouver Magazine International Wine Awards. Each year the winners would be tallied, the bottles would be called in for our Art Department to shoot, and said bottles would then pass into my custody to organize in a makeshift wine room that took over a broom closet. If someone was retiring, I’d curate some wine for the farewell. If someone in sales needed a special bottle for a special client, I found a bottle of Painted Rock or Culmina to help close the deal. I would even occasionally conduct staff “seminars” where we’d go through a few bottles of Riesling to pick out the difference and similarities.
But when our office moved, the final task was to liquidate what remained of the collection. We hadn’t been running the Wine Awards for some time, so the leftovers had morphed into a weird collection of oddities: the bold names and the crowd-pleasers were long gone, so what was left was an enological Island of Misfit Toys. I held a final charity auction of the remainder for the staff–almost assuredly running afoul of numerous BC liquor laws—before we made the move.
I bring this up because I recently had one of those weird bottles and was blown away. It was textured and classy, with a long finish I almost need to call…velvety (sorry). It was a bottle of from 2009, a weird wine that mixed the modern with the classical in Sicily and was almost certainly priced under $10. Even today, you can buy the current vintage of the bottle for $13. No one ages it.
Years before, one of our esteemed wine awards judges—Iain Philip—educated me in the hidden world of aging wine that no one ever intended to age. He once poured from a bottle of mid 1980’s Columbia Crest that he had bought at grocery store in Washington with the $4.25 price tag still attached. Another judge–the sadly departed Terry Threlfall—confided that he often bought cases of non-vintage Pol Roger and aged them for a decade to get that toasty, brioche-y profile on a (relative) budget.
So here’s a few selections I think might make for a screwball experiment. The criteria is that they have to be under $25 (bonus points for being under $20), or there’s no real trick involved.
This is the baby that kickstarted my quest. In retrospect, there are a few clues as to age-worthiness. Italy is an excellent place to start given the abundance of rustic, but well-made wine that can be had for cheap. Sicily is a bit of an outlier here, because most of the wines we see locally are on the pricey side and feature the sexy Nerello Mascalese grape grown near Mt Etna.
This wine had the far more rustic local grape, Nero D’Avola (which, when grown with care, is a secret star in its own right), but then adds Cabernet Sauvignon —a very not local grape—and is a screwball choice given that its strengths—fruit, body, tannins—are pretty similar to what Nero already has. But for the circumstances I probably would have stayed away from this bottle, but fate intervened and something that started as over-extracted, fruit-forward and basic morphed into something elegant, refined and a certified treat.
Most people who age whites stick to pricey Chardonnays from California and France. The advanced class will do Champagne and Riesling. But if you really want to get wine nerd love…go for Semillon. While the grape plays a supporting role in the very age-worthy and (very pricey) White Bordeaux, it’s coming out as a soloist is thanks to our friends in Australia’s Hunter Valley, where aging well-made Semillon is a bit of a calling card.
Sadly we rarely see that juice here (although for $24, this bottle will 100% age for 10 years), but luckily there are a few heroes in the Okanagan (like Bartier Bros., Chronos and La Frenz) who are committed to not only growing the grape, but bottling it on its own. I’m going with Hester Creek, because the Semillon vines are 25+ years old but they are committed to keeping it real on the price. When young, this wine is quite wonderful—lot of citrus and even a bit of bracing citrus pith (the white stuff)—but give it a few years and the deeper, more honeyed notes will start to emerge and it will, I’m betting, knock you on your ear.
Ok, so I’m not really going out on a limb to say that BC Riesling is age-worthy, as we have numerous bonafide Riesling stars (Tantalus, Martin’s Lane, Syncromesh and Sperling all come to mind) who have well proven this hypothesis. But I think the adventurous pick is to set you sights further afield to Lillooet, where Rolf de Bruin and his team have been oenological pioneers for the past decade-plus. I’ve had a few older vintages of their Riesling, and there are hallmarks here that point to some real ageworthiness. First and foremost is that they don’t shy away from the grapes’ natural sweetness, as long as they have corresponding acidity. This bottle, their “dry” Riesling, still has likely more residual sugar than many of the other producers listed above, but that should be a helpful ballast to steer this offering deep into the future.