Not all wines improve with age. In fact, some are best consumed the same year you purchase them. Others, like Bordeaux, can benefit from a stint in the cellar.
Red Bordeaux has enough tannin, acid and alcohol to give it serious age-ability. Modest bottlings from good vintages can hold for five to seven years; those with a pedigree only start to enter their prime after a decade.
What makes the latest string of excellent Bordeaux vintages so interesting is the nature of the tannins. They are ripe and mature. This means that, from the get-go, the wines are less bitter and astringent on the tongue and that they will only become more silken and velvety with time.
But tannin is more than texture. Tannin has flavor, too. When unripe, tannins taste of strong tea and herb. As they ripen (and this happens while the grape is still on the vine), they start to pick up a hint of cocoa, then dark chocolate.
Warm, aka "good" vintages tend to have softer more texturous tannins that track to the chocolate side of the spectrum; cooler vintages have more herbal/tea components with firm or astringent tannins.
Naturally, the tannins in wines from both warm and cool vintages will soften with age, but the core flavor profile will not disappear. If the wine is green, herbal and "astringent" in its youth, it will be green, herbal and "smooth" in its old age. The herbal edge will become less dominant, but it will never go away.
Lately, Bordeaux has been blessed with some stellar years: 2000, 2005, 2009. But 2001 was good also and 2010 is stacking up nicely, too. And nothing in between was found lacking.
Translation: Start your cellars
Here are some personal picks. As prices vary tremendously, none are quoted, but wines are listed from least expensive to most expensive within each category.
Ch. La Cardonne, Medoc AOC Cru Bourgeois Superieur
Ch. Larose-Trintaudon, Haut-Medoc AOC Cru Bourgeois Superieur
Ch. Cantemerle Haut-Medoc: AOC (5th Growth)
Ch. Carbonnieux Cru Classé des Graves
Ch. Smit-Haut-Lafitte Cru Classé des Graves
Ch. Pape Clement Cru Classé des Graves
Note: Many of the red wines of Graves are known for their distinctive hint of clove. They have a tremendous nap to their tannins (think: brushed cotton).
Ch. Prieuré Lichine (4th Growth)
Ch. Brane-Cantenac (2nd Growth)
Ch. Cantenac Brown (3rd Growth)
Note: The wines of Margaux are considered the most feminine of the left bank communes. They are delicately perfumed and, by comparison, less texturous in their tannin structure than their neighbors (think: silk or light satin). They are elegant and full of finesse vs. dense and powerful.
Ch. Langoa Barton (3rd Growth)
Ch. Lagrange (3rd Growth)
Ch. Beychevelle (4th Growth)
Note: The wines of St. Julien are often compared to New World offerings. Their chocolate-covered cherry flavor profile makes them the most "Californian" of the Médoc bottlings. Others claim that they are halfway between the structure and aroma of Margaux (its neighbor to the south) and Pauillac (its neighbor to the north). With regard to the tannins: think heavy satin or light fleece.
Ch. D'Armailhac (5th Growth)
Ch. Clerc Milon (5th Growth)
Ch. Pichon Baron (2nd Growth)
Note: The wines of Pauillac are known for their grip of dusty cocoa. These are wines of power and staying power. Most are built to age and, as such, show their true colors with time in the bottle. The tannins are like corduroy or suede in texture…firm with nap.
Ch. Meyney Cru Bourgeois Supérieur
Ch. Phelan Segur, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels
Ch. Cos d'Estournel (2nd Growth)
Note: The wines of St. Estephe have historically been quite tough upon release; hence the incorporation of more Merlot into modern-day blends. The wines boast a pronounced minerality, acidity and firm tannins (think taffeta…that crunchy wedding fabric).
Ch. La Couspaude, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé
Ch. La Gaffeliere, St. Emilion 1er Grand Cru Classé B
Ch. Beau-Sejour Becot St. Emilion 1er Grand Cru Classé B
Note: The wines of St. Emilion have often been referred to as the "Burgundies of Bordeaux." Due to their diverse soil types (limestone, sand, iron-rich clays), one cannot generalize about style. Wines made from grapes grown on limestone will display more acidity and sleek, polished tannins. They glide across the palate like ball-bearings. Wines made from grapes grown on sand will be more overtly fruity with less structure. Those wines grown on the iron-rich clays and gravels typical to Pomerol display notes of prune and walnut within a velvet robe of tannin.
Ch. Petit Village
Note: As mentioned above, iron-rich Pomerol soils manifest themselves with aromas of prune or walnut in the finished wine. As these wines begin to age, there is often a hint of coffee or malt. Pomerols are known for their rich velvety texture and seductive aromatic profile. To quote Cocks and Feret, "Pomerol is the wine which makes you like wine."