The question: I want to buy a cellar-worthy wine that I can present to my niece when she turns 18. She was born in 2008. Any affordable suggestions, or is this a bad idea? I would store it in our basement cold room.
The answer: I get the question a lot (not specifically about your niece, of course, and not just about 2008). Permit me to offer some broad observations before addressing your specific needs …
Your instinct to seek advice is wise because the vast majority of wines made today would start falling apart long before your niece starts finger-painting "Dear Auntie" greeting cards, let alone enters university. Price is a major issue, sadly. Only fine wines with sound balance and good tannin-acid structure can blossom into their late teens. Wine styles with the best long-term track records (and you can add the qualification "expensive" for each in this list) include red Bordeaux, red burgundy, Rhône Valley reds such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, California cabernet sauvignon, German riesling, vintage-dated champagne, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino; vintage port and Madeira. That's by no means a complete list, but it's a good guideline.
The other big consideration is vintage, or the harvest year designated on the label. Like people, wines have good years and bad. This is where you may want to consult the Internet for a so-called vintage chart. These charts list a variety of regions around the world along with a corresponding point score (out of 100). That score reflects the general quality of the growing season in the region. The higher the number, the more likely a wine from the region will be built for the long haul.
I regret to say that 2008 was less than stellar in most major regions, but you've got choices. The year was decent in Bordeaux, particularly the district called Pomerol. Three other good European options from 2008: German riesling, Barolo from Piedmont and reds from the Maremma coast of Tuscany, home to many so-called super Tuscans. Chile, Argentina and California (specifically cabernet sauvignon from all three) did well, too.
Among all of the above, my inclination would be to go with Barolo. Can you afford $50 or more? That's the price of entry for a good Barolo. If you want to try your luck for less than, say, $30, I'd suggest cabernet sauvignon from Chile. I've enjoyed older, affordable Chileans that stood the test of time, and Chile is an underrated category for cellar-worthiness in my book.
The safer option is vintage port, a great fortified wine from Portugal, which tends to improve with many decades in bottle even in the less-than-ideal cellar conditions of an old-fashioned cold room. But port comes with two drawbacks in your case. The vintage bottlings, unlike less-expensive non-vintage-dated ports, are pricey, usually upward of $50 and $100-plus for the best. The other problem is that they're heavy and sweet. There are few 18-year-old women (or men, for that matter), who like to sit around the fireplace and hold forth on Victorian politics over a heartwarming glass of port. I suspect your niece, when she turns 18, would be happier with a bottle of raspberry vodka. But, of course, it's the thought that counts, and she's a lucky girl to have such a thoughtful aunt. She'll be able to hold on to that Barolo or port for a few years more, too. And perhaps by the time 2026 rolls around our nation's youth will have moved beyond flavoured vodka.
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