There's an oft expressed, somewhat romantic notion that wine, once in the bottle, takes on a life of its own, riding a curve not unlike that of most other life forms from infancy to youth, from young-adulthood through to maturity, old age, and eventual expiration. I'm a romantic myself, in many senses of the term, and as such I'm not inclined to disagree with the idea that wine is, or at least should seem to be if it's any good, alive. There's certainly a transformative process innate to wine—from grapes on the vine, through fermentation and aging, to a beverage, an end point more different from than similar to the starting point—that supports the notion of life in the bottle.
Just as strong an argument can be made, though, that grapes, once plucked from their vines, are dead, just like flowers, stems clipped for display in a vase. Such an argument might continue that making those grapes into wine is a way of trying to preserve the life that once was, of slowing—to a certain extent even controlling—the decay that inevitably ensues.
|Semi-relevant interlude (right down to the slate) courtesy of Good Grape.|
The problem with that scenario is that it creates the idea of a perfect moment. How do you know when a wine is ready to drink, when it's at its peak? Really, one never does. But the expectation of capturing that moment, of patiently chasing it, holding one's breath in anticipation of it, can lead to a kind of fear or exaggerated expectancy that all too often makes wine exploration more an obsessive venture than an enjoyable one.
The trick to truly enjoying wine, getting the most out of it, is to drink it. Stop obsessing over it. You're in the mood to check out that lone bottle of '05 Grand Cru Burgundy you bought, even though you think it might not be "ready"? Just do it. A friend came over and you'd really like to pop the cork on your last bottle of '89 Bordeaux from Château X, even though you've been saving it for a "special" occasion? Pop that cork. Keep imagining the scenarios for not opening a bottle—from infanticide, to price vs. situation concerns, to the ideal day on the biodynamic calendar—and just open that bottle.
This is all a strong argument for buying multiple bottles of any given wine. Drink some now, save some for later. Use your memory or compare notes to learn about how the wine evolves over time. Of course it helps if the wine in question is only $12.50 per/bottle (see below).... There are some well-respected wine writers out there who counsel others not to buy wines that they can't afford to buy by the case, or at least in quantities of three or four. I don't always follow that advice, as it would prevent me from experiencing too many wines that I really want to try. But I still stand by that advice, particularly for those who are looking to build and sustain cellars that will actually reward their drinking patterns. Here's a case in point:
Johann Peter Reinert 2001
$12.50 on release. 10% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
It could be argued that I drank more than my fair share of Johann Peter Reinert's '01 Kabinett trocken when it was first released. Why not? At $12.50 a bottle, it was a solid value and a clear reminder that Riesling is not only incredibly versatile at the table but also can indeed be bone, bone dry. I drank another bottle or two midway through the gap between '02/'03 and now, then semi-intentionally left one alone for later investigation.
Without the residual sugar of a fruity-style Kabinett or the intensity of physical extract of a Spatlese or Auslese trocken, a Riesling Kabinett trocken, particularly from a marginal viticultural area like the Saar, relies primarily on its acidity, along with its harmony and balance (without which the equation crumbles) for preservation. Reinert, who specializes more in feinherb and fruchtig style Rieslings, generally produces lower-pradikat trocken Rieslings only in vintages when he feels the balance is right.
Even with that fine original balance, I suspected that nine years from the vintage might be pushing things a bit—again, I'd saved this one half intentionally, to learn from its progress, and half accidentally, passing over it many a time in favor of something else that seemed right in the moment—and I was right, in a way at least. The wine has clearly entered a state of decay. Gone was its pale color of youth, replaced by a lightly burnished gold in the glass. Gone too was the nerve of youth, its acidity now completely relaxed, almost slack. What trace of fruitiness remained was, coincidentally, most clearly reminiscent of another, much quicker path to decay, that of a clementine left a little too long on the counter, still edible but not as bright and juicy as when at its peak of ripeness.
While the pleasure in drinking may have changed, it hadn't disappeared. Perhaps that's partially me, as I like to experiment and am very open to seeing what happens to a wine as it takes on air over the course of days in an open bottle, or develops over the course of years in the cellar. It's also certainly part of the magic of good German Riesling. There are few other wines so capable of clearly expressing their origins. If you've drunk young Rieslings and doubted that conclusion, try leaving a few good ones longer than you'd normally think sensible. In this case, in spite of the decay in the fruit and structural departments, there was a clear sense of the wine's origins, of slate, of oily, diesel-like characteristics (some call it truffle-y). It was as if the wine was fighting the bell curve and instead going full circle, returning to the earth from which it was first born—like it or not, a beautiful thing.