Wine collecting need not be a preserve of the rich and pretentious.
That truth was driven home to me a week ago at a recorking clinic in Toronto hosted by Penfolds, the Australian winery famous for long-lived reds such as Grange Shiraz and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon. The free service, staged in select cities around the globe on a regular basis, enables collectors to get a sort of medical check-up on their aging Penfolds treasures. Winemakers Peter Gago and Steve Lienert asses the bottles visually, carefully uncork them if the owner agrees, taste them for soundness and, if determined to be in good condition, top them up with a recent vintage of the same wine. The wines are then resealed with a fresh cork and official stamp signed by one of the winemakers. (If they fail the taste test, they're recorked but get no approval seal.) A new cork gives old wines a fresh lease on life. That's because cork, made from tree bark, can degrade over time, permitting too much corrosive oxygen to penetrate the bottle and threaten the wine.
Most people who show up at such events cart in bottles, sometimes cases, of the expensive stuff, such as Grange. I, too, brought in a bottle of 1990 Grange (purchased for $175 but now worth $500 at auction) as well as a 1993 Old Vines red from my cellar but chose not to have them uncorked after they passed Lienert's visual scrutiny. The "fill" level of the wines was high, suggesting there had been little evaporation over time. Praise be, the corks had kept their seals.
But I also brought in a humble 1994 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet that had been kicking around my cellar for 15 years. I can't recall what I paid, but it was released in Australia for about $5, Lienert told me. Today, a new vintage of the same wine, the 2008, costs a mere $16.45 in Ontario and $16.95 in British Columbia, not the kind of prices one tends to associate with long-term cellaring.
Lienert said the bottle appeared to be in perfect condition, but I was giddy with curiosity. "Open it," I said. "Let's taste." It was superb. Lienert said it was the highlight of his day - an affordable red that delivered delicious complexity after 16 years, a testament - though obviously self-serving on his part - to the Penfolds brand. He encouraged me to serve it, whenever I chose over the next couple of years, to guests in fine stemware from a decanter, with the label out of sight, then to have them guess at its price. It had all the characteristics of a wine costing $40 plus, he said with a smile. "No one would guess this to be a $16 wine," he said. I agreed, gleeful that my paltry investment had soared but even happier that I'd get to enjoy a seductively fragrant older wine.
What follows are a few cellar-worthy reds, some affordable and some expensive (most from today's release at Ontario Vintages stores). Incidentally, if you missed my regular Wednesday column in the Life section this week, I should alert you to an added feature of the wine coverage here at The Globe (click here to read it). Starting today, I'm introducing numerical scores based on the 100-point system pioneered by the estimable U.S. critic Robert Parker, now used by numerous publications around the world. The scores are listed ahead of each wine's price. (Click here to read an explanation of the scoring system.)
Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2008 (Score: 87; $16.45 in Ont., $16.95 in B.C., $16.45 in Alta., $17.99 in N.S., $18.49 in N.B.; available in other provinces, too). Full-bodied, with a polished texture, this nicely balanced Australian delivers fresh berry and plum flavours, juicy acidity and a lively note of peppercorn. Though intended for early consumption and sealed under screw cap, it could age nicely for 10 years in a cool cellar. And because there's no cork to keep moist, you can store it upright.
El Arte de Vivir 2007 (88, $13.95). A major Spanish bargain of today's release at Ontario Vintages stores. Full-bodied and initially sweet with dark berries, this 100-per-cent tempranillo from the Ribera de Duero region then turns dry and astringent, with a blast of chalky tannins. Cellar up to five years, or splash it around now in a decanter and serve it with rare beef or lamb.
Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (87, $15.95). Big value here from Argentina. Full-bodied and concentrated, with a smooth middle, toasty oak and juicy acidity on the finish. It should age nicely for three years.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (90, $24.95). A wine from the same company that controls Penfolds, this brand is distinguished for producing reasonably affordable cabernets that can age gracefully for two decades or more. A textbook cabernet essence of cassis flavour forms the core of this nicely structured red, hung on a firm backbone of acid and tannins.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Merlot 2007 (88, $24.99 in B.C. through www.tinhorn.com). Full-bodied and smooth, with notes of blackberry, dark chocolate and spice. The transparent colour belies its concentration and ripeness, with pronounced fruit hiding the substantial 15-per-cent alcohol. Cellar this B.C. red for up to seven years.
Poggio Bonelli Chianti Classico Riserva 2006 (90, $28.95). Medium full-bodied and smooth, with notes of cherry liqueur, violet, herbs and meat juices. Cellar this Tuscan red for three to 10 years.
Jackson-Triggs Delaine Vineyard Syrah 2007 (89, $29.95). Winemaker Marco Piccoli shows a deft hand here with the syrah grape in Niagara. Full-bodied and plummy, it displays spicy oak, crisp acidity and a classic syrah note of white pepper. Age it for up to 5 years.
Domaine de la Côte de L'Ange Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 (91, $37.95). Full-bodied and luscious, with a velvety texture, notes of licorice and roast beef peeking through its black-fruit core. This French red would merit a slightly higher score were it not for the subtle medicinal note of its high, 14.5-per-cent alcohol.
Paolo Scavino Barolo 2005 (93, $44.95). A star of today's Vintages release, this Italian blockbuster offers up shades of raspberry and spice against a canvas of chewy, copious tannins. Age it for 10 years if you can or splash it around in a decanter to enable the air to soften the astringent tannins.
Philip Togni Tanbark Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (91, $59.95). From the great Napa Valley cabernet producer Philip Togni, this relatively affordable little brother of the flagship wine channels Bordeaux, with nuances of graphite, roast beef and farm earth. A good candidate for laying down for up to 12 years.
Ornellaia 2007 (94, $179.95). Pricey, yes, but one for the long haul. This trophy Tuscan red, blended mostly from cabernet sauvignon and merlot, shows intense fruit concentration, coffee, spice, minerals and copious tannins. Age it for 10 to 15 years if you can.