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For a thing rarely savoured by most drinkers, old wine sure gets a lot of air time. Snobs love to brag about it: "We drained a '78 La Tâche and '92 Screaming Eagle at the managing partner's house last weekend, man. Killer." Reviewers often cite peak drinking windows, as in "best after 2025." And Hallmark copywriters like to dip into the well for birthday eye-rollers. "Remember, age gets better with wine!" or "In wine years, you're what they call an awesome vintage, grandma."

It's as though the highest purpose of fermented grape juice were to be really old, which is misleading, because most wine is designed to last no longer than your latest smartphone, namely about two to three years. Basically, don't bother laying down a $14 valpolicella for your newborn to uncork on her 19th birthday in 2037 unless your ulterior motive is to turn her off alcohol.

Knowing which styles and producers are likely to pay dividends far down the road takes a moderate amount of wine education, although if you have deep pockets, you can simply invest in the obvious blue chips, such as first-growth Bordeaux and triple-digit Napa cabernet.

But knowledge and wealth are not the only factors that have reduced old wine to the status of legend for the broader public. Most people lack the patience or proper storage conditions. Or they simply don't care. The company behind a major Australian wine brand years ago conducted a study suggesting that 92 per cent of bottles are consumed within 48 hours of purchase. Even in wine, we want instant gratification.

And yet, what if you could have both, namely something that approaches a mature vintage and something you could buy now without having to wield an auction paddle? Although they tend to fly under the radar, bottles of that sort have always constituted a small part of the retail landscape. I call them precellared wines. You've just got to keep your eyes peeled, as in the case of the selections below, which are available now, or in coming weeks, at Ontario Vintages stores and, in a couple of cases, also in other provinces.

Certain estates, especially in Europe, will as a custom hold back a percentage of their inventory for release at a later date, hoping to impress discerning consumers by offering hard proof that their wines can age gracefully. In the past two years, for example, I've come across several excellent Bordeaux reds from the stellar 2010 vintage, some priced at $25 to $40.

Then there are those appellations where prematured wine has long been a matter of custom if not also law. Take Rioja in Spain. For the right to be called a Rioja reserva, wines must be at least three years old (measured from the date of harvest). A Rioja gran reserva is released only after five years. Brunello di Montalcino, the great sangiovese-based red of southern Tuscany, cannot be sold until five years after harvest. For brunello riserva, the minimum is six years.

What exactly do you get with such wines, the majority of which will set you back between $25 and $65? There's the rub. You may get transcendence, or you may get a mouthful of prunes and musty cardboard. As wines mature, faults can come to the fore just as easily as beauty. And it depends not only on the wine's condition, but also on your taste.

As years pass, fresh fruit tends to give way to stewed or dried. Aromatically, wines also gradually leap the fence from the orchard into the savoury garden, the damp forest and the barn stable or farmyard. Think old leather, composted leaves, tobacco and faded flowers, among other things.

It can be an acquired taste. I'm reminded of my mother. Not that she was much of a drinker, but she had little time for the worn surfaces and wobbly legs of antique furniture. If it wasn't crisp and new, it was junk.


Wines to try

Col D'Orcia Brunello di Montalcino 2012, Italy

SCORE: 93 PRICE: $52

Great producer in southern Tuscany, where sunshine and the thick-skinned local clone of sangiovese produce reds of cellar-worthy character. Medium-full-bodied, the wine is seductively supple and complex, with dried cherry, leather, pipe tobacco, licorice, moist earth and a whisper of farmyard. Excellent now, it should mature favourably for another decade. Available in Ontario on April 14 at the above price, $52 in Quebec.

Frescobaldi CastelGiocondo Brunello di Montalcino 2012, Italy

SCORE: 93 PRICE: $52.95

Polished and smooth, especially for a brunello. Cherry jam, chocolate and vanilla along with flowers and aromatic spices. Fine-ripe tannins. Still remarkably fresh. Available in Ontario at the above price, $55.99 in British Columbia, $57.99 in Manitoba, $48.85 in Quebec.

Alejandro Fernandez Dehesa La Granja 2008, Spain

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95

Medium-full-bodied, this red offers up stewed plum, coconut, vanilla and sandalwood characters. Dusty-earthy, yet lively. Available in Ontario, $21.80 in Quebec.

Château Verdignan 2005, France

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $49.95

From a great Bordeaux vintage. This is more concentrated than your usual Haut-Médoc fare. Blackberry, dark chocolate, some subtly funky barnyard fun and a whisper of mineral. Clearly the tannins have softened and the fruit is fading. Available in Ontario, $52.99 in British Columbia.

Cavino Nemea Reserve 2011, Greece

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95

Made from the agiorgitiko grape. Full and polished to a sheen. Blackberry syrup, licorice, coffee and minerals. A bargain. Available in Ontario as of March 31.

Poggio Verrano Dromos 2009, Italy

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $44.95

Luscious and concentrated, a multilayered and beautifully evolved Tuscan red. There's prune amid the plums here along with what seems like the slightest whiff of volatile acidity, just enough to perfectly underscore the fruit. Then the savoury notes rise up, including licorice, lavender, smoke, spices and earth. Drink it over the next six years. Available in Ontario at the above price, $39 in Quebec.

Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain Red 2005, Washington

SCORE: 93 PRICE: $79.95

Very smooth, very full and very good. A blend of mostly merlot with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Rich blackberry, dark chocolate, dark coffee and vanilla with tobacco-underbrush and a lively backbone of spice and acidity. Drink it over the next eight years. Available in Ontario, various prices in Alberta.

Palacio del Burgo Rioja Reserva 2010, Spain

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $28.95

Full, sticky-ripe and smooth. The fruit in this eight-year-old has begun shifting from fresh plum to prune and from cherry to jam, with notes of vanilla, old church wood and spices galore in the mix. Serve it with gamy meats or the cheese course. Available in Ontario, $29.99 in British Columbia, $25.75 in Quebec.

Château Grivière 2011, France

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $24.95

A simple cru bourgeois from Bordeaux yet aspirational and handsome for its years. Bone-dry, gently chalky, with still-sticky tannins and notes of cherry and cassis mingled with mint, black olive and graphite. Old-school structure. Available in Ontario.

Estate Hatzimichalis Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Greece

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95

Full, super-ripe and jammy, showing lots of sweet prune and syrupy cherry joined by leather and toasted spices. Available in Ontario.