When you emerge from your 50-degree wine cellar with a bottle of prized red wine, it may not taste as good as a bottle of the same wine left out in the kitchen for a month before being opened.
I drew this conclusion from chatting with Ron Batori of Heublein Fine Wine Group. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, he had recently staged two complete tastings of BV-PR vintages, with bottles from virtually every year since 1936.
Included was a taste of the newly released 1986 BV Private Reserve, and the wine wowed a normally sedate group of wine collectors. The wine is marvelous, showing more mint and spice components and far more depth than many BV Private Reserve Cabernets of the past.
Winemaker Joel Aiken did a masterful job of blending to capture the black currant elements occasionally detectable in this wine and to entwine them around a complex core of cedar, cherry and anise. It is striking wine, but less of it was made than usual (5,000 cases instead of 15,000).
The tastings of older BV wines were staged at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco and at the Regency Hotel in New York. I attended the West Coast event and found most of the wines excellent, although some were a bit faded.
The New York event was staged a week later. A few days after that, I ran into Dennis Foley of the auction house Butterfield & Butterfield, who had served as sommelier for both events. I asked Foley his opinion of the two events.
"Well, curiously enough," he said, "the wines in New York all tasted better. No matter what the source of the wines, they all seemed to be in better shape."
This was strange. I knew that most of the wines had come from the same cases, stored in the cellar of the winery. Six bottles of each case were shipped to San Francisco two months before the event; the other six were sent to New York.
I called Batori and asked him whether he too had noticed that the wines were better in New York. He said they were, unquestionably.
So I asked the obvious question: Was there any difference in the way the wines were treated before the event? The sommelier's handling of them had been identical (all wines were decanted), so there had to be another answer.
Batori said that in San Francisco, the wines were stored in a cellar used to house the hotel's wines, where temperatures never rose above 55 degrees. This, we have all read, is the theoretically perfect cellar temperature.
But in New York, Batori was given the option of storing the wine in either a wine cellar or a warmer room, perhaps as warm as 80 degrees, for the six weeks before the event. He opted for the warmer room, based on no scientific evidence whatever.
"I recalled from my days in Europe that a lot of wines were pulled out of the cellar days, weeks, even months before they were to be tasted," said Batori. "You could call it a kind of an oral tradition in England. No one ever wrote down that the wines were better this way, but they would suggest that you should do it this way."
Bringing wine out of a cold cellar to warm up for a few days or weeks before serving it may be a way of recognizing that wines are truly living products and go through periods when they sulk. Winemakers often talk about recently bottled wines that are "dumb"--going through a stage where the fruit that was evident in the cask or tank seems to have disappeared. Disappeared, that is, until a bottle has been left to rest for a few weeks. Then the wine opens up again.
Perhaps removing a wine from cold storage weeks before consuming it wakes it from its slumber in some way.
"All the wines from 1964 on had been put in warehouse conditions (at the BV winery)," said Batori. "They may have been stunned for upwards of 20 years and needed a period to recover."
He said the wines that really showed better in New York than in California were from years where there wasn't much fruit to begin with, not the great vintages and not the bad vintages: "It really made a difference in the vintages that tended to be shy, like 1971, 1972, and 1975."
Batori pointed out that a number of chateaux in France's Bordeaux district often pull wine out of the cellar and store it in a warmer place well before it is to be consumed. "I remember at Grand-Puy-Lacoste," he said, "Raymond Dupin, the proprietor, used to have around in his dining room cases and cases of wine that he designated as wines he would have over the next year.
"These were wines that he felt were ready to be served, and having them in the dining room expanded the character, made them even more ready to drink."
He added that while he was living in England for six years, the best wines he tasted were at the Whitehorse Inn at Chilgrove. "Barry Phillips always kept the wines to be served in the restaurant sort of around the room," he recalled, "and I always remember the wines tasting warmer and sweeter."