Episode 6: Complex and far more ethereal

What makes a great vintage? And does it really matter when you're buying wine for your cellar?

Presented by

Wine writer Jane Faulkner breaks it down for us, also sharing her best advice on how to get the most of your cellar. Better still, she reminds us to open the wines and enjoy them. 

This series on cellaring is produced in partnership with Langton's Fine Wines.

Listen to episode six.


Jane:              I love the way aged wine morphs into something usually far more complex and ethereal than the young, maybe, fruity, vibrant, spicy number or that slightly tannic, nervy, Barolo that's not quite ready and you can put those down and just let them gently do their thing. I love that.

Speaker 2:     Jane's a long-time journalist and wine writer as well as a member of the tasting team for the annual Halliday Wine Companion guide. She loves wine and makes it super approachable, which is why we asked her into the studio to talk about vintages and also her own cellaring experiences.

Jane:              I will say, now this is the thing, cellaring is a completely, it's not even a science, it's imprecise. Scientists can't tell us how wine ages. I find that extraordinary. They really can't say, ‘Oh, it's because this, this and this’. We know certain factors, so there's no point saying, ‘Oh, that wine's going to age for 10, 20 years.’ It might, but it might not either. It's your reference point. It's your knowledge. It's your experience.

Amelia:           I'm Amelia Ball, editor of the Halliday Wine Companion magazine. We're at the final episode of our cellaring series, in partnership with Langton's Fine Wines. Feel free to get in touch, mail@winecompanion.com.au. More information is also available at winecompanion.com.au. What can you tell us about your own wine collection?

Jane:               It's a tragedy. It is a cellar that's over three sites, which actually maybe is not a tragedy. I think it's actually pretty cool, because I've got some really good wines off-site, so I'm not tempted to go and-

Amelia:           Was that a conscious decision, when you moved them off-site?

Jane:              No. It was necessity because I have a cellar at home, which is underground. It's very cool, but it's cool like yeah, but it's not cool temperature-wise. It's about 18, 19 degrees, which isn't too bad, but I don't keep my really good stuff there. That's shorter term, one to five years. It's got a little stairwell for when I want to go and hide from everyone in the house, I go there.

Amelia:           Perfect.

Jane:              That's what I mean. It's very cool. I have two off-site cellars, which are really good and I have one wine fridge, which is really good as well.

Amelia:           What sort of wine are we talking?

Jane:              Mainly Italian. Obviously I buy a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino because they're the real age-worthy kind of wines. I think it's always interesting when you talk about cellaring. It's like, What does that mean? Are you wanting to do it really long-term, that you've got stuff you can age for 10, 15, 20 years? That's why I've got a couple of cellars that are a bit different. I've got a cellar that's just short-term that … wines that will improve one to five years, the one at home. The off-site, as I mentioned, has those Italian varieties that really age beautifully, 20, 30, 40 years plus. I do have a bit of Burgundy, but that's getting so, so expensive at the moment, so I'm pulling back on that in terms of my ability to buy, or just get it actually.

                         I have Australian and German rieslings. I also have a fair bit of chardonnay, both Burgundy and Australian chardonnay. I think I'm bolstering the entire Australian chardonnay business with my collection. I have a lot of other stuff like, I love vin jaune, I love sherry. Vin jaune definitely can age beautifully, so I got quite a bit of that, and more. Sometimes I just have, maybe I find something of, Oh, that's so cool I need to get a bottle or two or a couple of bottles back from my trips overseas. It's amazing what you can fit in your suitcase. I know it's three bottles, or four, or whatever it is. I might have a couple of special bottles that'll go there as well.

Amelia:           And they obviously carry a bit of sentiment if you've picked them up on the spot.

Jane:              Yeah. I love that. Sometimes I'm at a winery doing a tasting, and I always buy wine, I'm very particular about that. It might be that, for example, if I'm with a Barolo producer, there are lots of shops around Alba and Barolo anyway, where you can buy the wines, and I'll do that. I'll go and buy, maybe, the previous vintage, or maybe there's a reserve or quantities were so tiny that you managed to get a couple of bottles. I'm thinking of some of the older stuff, Mascarello, a bottle of Mascarello. When he was alive, he used to paint, by hand, some of the labels and they were exquisite and I've managed over time to buy a number of those bottles and they're just beautiful. They're special they're like, Wow. I will drink the contents of them at some stage, but I'll also keep empty bottles-

Amelia:           Keep the bottles.

Jane:               Yeah. They're really beautiful.

Amelia:           I suppose that cellaring really is sophisticated guesswork.

Jane:              We over-estimate how long a wine can age, and I think we sometimes over-estimate a style, how it can change. For me, I would rather drink a really good wine in its youth than a really great wine when it's dead and we left it too long. With that, it means you've got to taste your wine cellar contents occasionally. I'm no longer a trophy hunter. I don't put wines in my cellar that have won all these awards, or, ‘This got the top wine of the year in this competition’ whatever it may be. I buy wines from producers. It's as simple as that. That leads into, perhaps, a question about vintages. Well obviously it's farming. They're going to be difficult vintages and I find that some of the most compelling wines are those difficult vintages.

                        An example of that is the 2008, both Burgundy and Barolo/Barbaresco, where it was quite a cool year, a lot of stress, yields were down and they sort of had a little bit of ripening in late summer certainly in Barolo. Those wines are fabulous. They are looking so beautiful now. I'm glad I bought quite a lot of them and it turned out to be a great vintage for me.

Amelia:           Was there a lot of hype at this stage that it wasn't a great vintage and people were being deterred from buying up?

Jane:              Well, maybe not deterred, but certainly people were talking it down saying, ‘No, it's not a great vintage.’ But who's deciding that? I really do get annoyed when people, and often it's wine writers, truth be told, saying, ‘Oh, it's a terrible vintage. It's this and that.’ Have you tasted some of the wines? You've really got to have that context and say, ‘Well, look, it's maybe not a wine to age for 20, 30 years, but gee, something pretty good now.’ I remember 2003, which was really a heatwave, a shocker in Europe and some of the Barolos were, if they left their fruit on the vine, because it's always the last to be picked nebbiolo, they got some cooked fruit.

                        There were some really ordinary Barolo, but there were some really fantastic ones as well. In 2013, at a retrospective, we looked at those wines, 2003. Ten years later some of them were astonishingly good and they still had years ahead of them. I think we shouldn't write off a vintage and I know a couple of international writers tried to write off the 2003 Barolo vintage. Big mistake, hence it's the producer you've got to … they're the ones you should follow and really be faithful to them. Good vintages and lesser vintages, I find that exciting if you do, say, if you've got 10 vintages or 20 vintages from one producer, that's a snap or a sense of history with that producer. I think that's gorgeous. I love that.

                        That's how I buy wine now, whereas before it was ad hoc, hence my tragic wine cellar that still has bits and pieces.

Amelia:           I'd love to ask what you can see and taste in a damaged wine.

Jane:               If you've kept a wine too long and it's maderised or it's oxidised, perhaps oxidation can be a cork issue and it can be youthful over time anyway, it just tastes like really bad cooking port your granny might have kept in the back of the cupboard. It's dead, desiccated fruit, dried out and it's got that kind of port-like character. It's very distinct, just doesn't taste fresh. I know, you go fresh, hold on, it’s an aged wine, but you should be surprised with aged wines. There should be an aliveness, vivacity to them, even though they have these tertiary gorgeous characters that change the palate. There should be a freshness. Now obviously, I'm not talking about fruity freshness. It should be alive and, unfortunately, the dilemma with cork is it's imperfect.

                         I can't believe it's 2018 and we still don't have a correct closure for a wine bottle, which is scandalous to this day. Even though I think screwcaps are a really good closure, it's not perfect. We don't have a perfect closure. When cork works, it's great, but too often it doesn't. The problem with cork is that if you buy a case, every bottle will be different. Guaranteed. When it works it's great and some of the greatest aged wines I've ever had, not surprisingly, have been under cork, because that's what they did. If it's faintly TCA-affected, it might be a little bit dusty and the dustiness doesn't go away.

                        The wet cardboard the wet dog. When something's really overt, you go, ‘Oh yes, that's TCA’ or, ‘Oh that's oxidised,’ or maderised excessive volatility. Other issues, it could be winemaking issues as well. Too much brettanomyces. I loathe brett. Sometimes when I've had a wine with brett, and maybe it's at dinner, I'm okay with it, but if I know there's been a vintage affected or the producer is renowned for brettanomyces in their wines, which is a hygiene issue on the whole, then I don't buy those wines. I don't like it. That's almost a different matter, isn't it? With cellaring wine. The main issues are the cork closure and you've just kept it too long and it's dead. It's got to be alive.

Amelia:           How do you describe those aromas and flavours you get from brett?

Jane:              Shit. Excuse me. There are actually a couple of types of brettanomyces. There's guaiacol, which comes from toasty barrels, you can get it from that. Smoke taint characters, but mainly people call it barnyard or faecal kind of character. It's not pleasant, is it? Brettanomyces is very unpleasant. But, you know what? There are some people out there that can't smell it and can't taste it. We all taste and smell differently, and I find that immensely fascinating. Rotundone, which is the peppery character… you might love your shiraz with a bit of pepper. It generally is a cool-climate kind of character or it's a cool character. Often wet vintage can produce more. A little bit of it is, to me, delightful. Too much is too much. There are some people that can't detect it.

                        All this stuff is fascinating but that's what makes wine, generally, and even cellaring wine, so interesting, is because we'll all have different preferences. I might say, ‘Oh, wow. That's a great little peppery Mount Langi Shiraz.’ And they'll go, ‘Is it?’ Mount Langi is renowned because it's got that beautiful peppery character to it. The fault stuff, you're going to find that if you cellar wine, it's going to happen, simple as that. Even with a screwcap, if it's been knocked, that could cause oxygen to get in, and there's a misnomer that there's no wine ingress into screwcap. There is. Wine under screwcap will age. They age more slowly and, generally, more evenly.

                        Pending a cellar is not a spare cupboard at the back, they do age more evenly. Now having wines under screwcap for 20 years, they're a highlight and I just wish I could buy more stuff under screwcap i.e. Barolo, Barbaresco. One day they'll see the light, although a couple of producers are putting some of their Langhe nebbiolo under screwcap. Massolino is one, so I bought quite a bit of that. It's great and that will age five, eight years maybe. That's enough just to get that little yummy twist of age character on the nebbiolo. But, look, you just have to accept the fact, if you cellar wine, not all of it's going to be perfect. Whatever that means for you, you're going to have problems.

                        What happens if your electricity goes off and the cellar heats up?  All sorts of things. Cooked wine is probably one of the worst characters, it's this

Amelia:          Yeah. I was going to say, heat affected-

Jane:              Heat affected. Oh boy, it's got this kind of ... it's burnt, I'd like to say, but I don't mean burnt with heat, it just has this blanched kind of character, and if something's not right, generally it's not right. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don't like that wine’. That's very different. It may be just a personal thing. But the certain faults that can come about, they're distinctive and once you've experienced them, then you can be better prepared sometimes, not always. Let's talk about the good stuff not the bad stuff.

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Amelia:           Langton's lists more than 900,000 bottles each year, with online auctions three times a week. Visit langtons.com.au.

Amelia:           In basic terms, what actually makes a great vintage?

Jane:               It's a few things actually. It's, obviously, the climate doing its right thing, but no one can dictate that anymore, not that we ever could. But it's really having a beautiful growing season without heat spikes, but again, this is a generalisation because there are certain varieties that can cope with that. Generally, if we're talking about cool climate varieties, nebbiolo, pinot noir, for example you want a lovely, even ripening season without disease pressure, so you don't want rains at the wrong time i.e. when flowering or when fruit is set, and you don't want it too hot. We don't get many of those anymore, so it just depends. It's a difficult question to answer because it depends on the region, the grape variety and what the producer is doing.

                        Be aware of what's out there and really, you can certainly get vintage reports but, I even read vintage reports and think, ‘Really? I don’t quite believe that.’ So if you do know a winemaker, perhaps give them a call and say, ‘How did you gauge the vintage?’ Maybe get that kind of inside information or if you happen to be at a wine dinner, ask these sorts of questions, because often the winemaker will say, ‘Look I really loved that cool vintage but it didn't sell too well’ and I would always take, generally, cooler vintage over ripe one or hot one. But that depends. If I'm talking about, say, aglianico, which ages really well, that can cope with heat. Some of the Mediterranean varieties, not that you keep them for a heck of a long time, but some of them do benefit from a few years in bottle.

Amelia:          There's always going to be exceptions to the rule when it comes to vintages.

Jane:              Of course. There's 2010, which is hailed as a great vintage. I'm going back to Barolo, because I've just done a stocktake of my cellar. I have way too many wines. That was a brilliant vintage. No wonder that sold out almost immediately, but it's sort of … yes, be aware of vintage, but it's not the only thing that should dictate your buying pleasure. If you don't like nebbiolo, it doesn't matter how good a vintage is, don't buy it.

Amelia:           And you don't have to like nebbiolo.

Jane:              Absolutely, please don’t, it makes it easier for me to buy!  It's all those sorts of things. And that's also a golden rule, I reckon, that no matter what wine writer you follow says, ‘Oh, this is a fabulous wine. It's going to age for so long.’ If you don't like, I don't know, shiraz or chardonnay, don't buy it, it defeats the purpose. What you'll have is your little trophy display and when you go to drink them, you’ll go, ‘Yeah just it's not for me.’ Buy wines you love.

Amelia:           Just like there's always going to be exceptions to the rule and the supposed bad vintages, there have to be some lesser wines made out of the supposedly great vintages, would you say?

Jane:              Of course, because it will depend on the produce. It really does come down to the producer for me. There are some that really aren’t great winemakers, let's just say that. I'm going to put that out there because we know that that's true. Sometimes you go, ‘Wow, you did that to that wine. How could you get that so wrong?’ If you've got a really even vintage that's beautiful, and everyone saying, ‘Oh, that's a glorious vintage.’ And then you over-extracted the wine. You left it in oak too long, you've rooted it. It's really when nature gives you something so brilliantly, there's this obsession by some winemakers to have their thumbprint on it so obviously.

                        I understand that, there's ego involved, but I think it's real maturity and sophistication with making wine when you just back off and say, ‘I'm watching that wine.’ I hate it when winemakers, ‘Oh, it just made itself.’ Well, wine doesn't make itself. You look after it. You don't want it to be faulty at the end. You just don't want to be heavy-handed with it. Those wines and those producers who have their ego intact, they're the wines I love. You just go, ‘Wow. Look what you've done with that. That's just exquisite.’ If only there were more like that.

Amelia:           I was going to ask for the best tips on navigating vintages, but I think you've really nailed it, perhaps, when you say to find a producer. It's obviously finding that wine style that you love and following that producer with a good track record.

Jane:              For sure. Vintage is important. I'm not saying that, I guess, but it breaks my heart if someone says, ‘Oh, just managed to get these vintages from that producer.’ And they've never bought from that producer ever before. That certainly did happen with 2010 Barolo because I have allocations with certain importers, and I buy wine every year, regardless of whether it's a so-called classic vintage or a lesser one, I will buy them because I'm interested in the story of that producer. In 2010, there were people that got on board and got wine that had never bought it before and that really pissed me off, quite frankly. I think that's wrong to do that. As I said, that's why the producer's far more interesting.

                        It's about that story. I don't want to drink a wine that's the same from the last year, and from the year before. I want difference. I want that beautiful difference you get in a producer's wines. When I hear consistency, I freak out. That's a word I do not like in my wine on the whole. When it's a house style, that's maybe a little bit different there, but I don't want that. I don't want homogeneity. Homogeneity in wine is dull. For me it's about that difference and that's what vintage brings. That should be celebrated, not compared or lambasted. Obviously we compare stuff because you'll get a vintage where you go, ‘Oh, that's a cracking vintage.’ But that doesn't mean I love the ‘08 over the 2010. It's just, maybe, the ‘10 will be able to cellar a bit longer, but heck.

Amelia:          It's not the be-all and end-all?

Jane:              No it isn't. So there you go.

Amelia:          Going against everything we've just said, are there some region and vintage combinations that we should keep top of mind? If we see come up we should snap them up?

Jane:              There are plenty, without doubt. I'm just thinking the 2017 wines from, say, Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, so their pinots, in particular, but also chardonnays that are out or about to come out in the market. That's a really, really lovely vintage; a beautiful vintage for both those varieties. So yes, I would say, ‘Boy, if you can get those wines, they're going to be pleasurable now.’ And also they're going to age; with the chardonnay, five to 10 years, and with the pinot, eight, 10, 15 years, so absolutely. I guess in Australia, where there are varieties that have morphed into that place. The thing about Australia, we can grow whatever we like, wherever we like. But that doesn't mean we should.

                        Areas that have really marked themselves with a certain variety, and I think of Margaret River and cabernet, there is no doubt that is the premium, or one of the best regions for cabernet, without doubt. We know that. As is Coonawarra, but I think Margaret River has been blessed with these exceptional vintages. I know it's much to the chagrin of other producers that go, ‘Oh, they’ve got another great vintage.’ They do, it's just this beautiful climate that they get there that is so suited to cabernet. The other thing about the variety there is they just get these amazing tannins in Margaret River cabernet. Certainly I love cabernet, so I do cellar a bit of that, and I would suggest that if you get those bargains in Margaret River – although prices are going up, as they should, I think that's fair enough – you get both immediate pleasure with them and also they're going to just age beautifully. And that's from experience of tasting older Margaret River cabernet. There will be some regions that are perhaps more consistent than others because of their climate, mesoclimate and microclimate all within the vineyards, that's for sure. In terms of cabernet, I'd certainly be looking at Margaret River as a go-to place, definitely.

Amelia:          We've touched on some of the more traditional grape varieties and wine styles often talked about when cellaring, but I know that you have quite a heavy involvement with alternative varieties in your role with-

Jane:              The Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show. It's a mouthful.

Amelia:          You see a lot of these styles coming out, and I know you've spoken before about how they're getting better and better, and Australian winemakers are really getting a handle on them and vines are maturing and all the rest of it. In the same vein, how are these wines aging? Do you think there are some hidden gems in there in terms of what we could be cellaring?

Jane:              Look, it's a really good question. Part of that show is about new varieties that are just being established. For example, assyritiko. There’s one producer of that in Australia, Jim Barry. Now, that is a variety that is going to do really well in Australia because you basically don't have to add acid to it. It's this gorgeous white variety from Santorini; crisp and crunchy. No surprise it’s the grape riesling makers wanted to bring into Australia and make a wine from it. Look, there's lots of cool stuff and I guess in terms of ageing, some varieties, it's too early to tell but I can tell you from my experience from where they hail-

Amelia:          Where they come from, yeah.

Jane:              For example, aglianico. We should be making some cracking aglianico. That will happen. It's a variety that is this gorgeous, deep, structured red has terrific tannins structure and also acidity. Those two things that are really important for ageing and I'm pleased to say that someone like Stephen Pannell, who's a terrific winemaker. He bought a beautiful property, which also had some old vines on it, but he kept the best part, he said, to plant aglianico. Watch that space, or watch what's he's doing.

Amelia:          It sounds like you're pretty good at throwing caution to the wind and cracking them open. You don't baulk at the special bottles in your collection?

Jane:              Special bottles, they're there to be enjoyed. People often say to me if I'm hosting a wine night or a dinner, they say, ‘Oh, look, I've got this special bottle. It's been in the fridge for five years.’ Obviously these aren't people who have a cellar, but same point. ‘Oh I've had this wine in my cellar for 20 years. What's it like?’ I say, ‘I don't know. You are going to have to open it.’ To me that's the joy. Open the wine. You don't need an occasion. The occasion is the wine. You have it. I don't get it. Why leave those six bottles until you're about to die? Don't do that. Please drink them. Share them with friends. Give me a call. I'm happy to help out.

Amelia:          What would your overall best advice be for anyone cellaring?

Jane:              Have a cellar. Have a proper cellar. This sounds crazy, but Australia is a hot country, so you cellar it is not under a stairwell, it's not a cupboard. You either have to have an off-site cellar that's cool, and if you're with cork, there has to be the humidity there. No light. No vibrations. All of that kind of stuff. But really, that might be a given. Have a good cellar, but my main advice sort of covers two things. Don't buy too much and buy wines you love. There's just no point. This life is too short and that's what makes it frustrating in terms of aged wines. You're waiting. You're waiting. Just buy the ones you love. If you love them today, you mentioned the how they morph, those wines, into something quite exquisite after 10, 15, 20 years. Yum.

                        I don't regret any wine I've bought, even if I've had to tip it down the sink. It's all trial and error, and your experiences in life change over time. You maybe once loved Hunter semillon and now you really love your German rieslings or you love Burgundy, can't afford it, so you found something else to love. I think that's good because it makes it interesting and diverse. That's the thing about wine – it's not just one variety or two varieties. There's so much to choose from, but you can get a bit lost in all of that and I did at one stage. I just had too much stuff. When I started to buy less, keep track of it much better, my cellar is really neat now as a result. I'll always try a few little gems and pop them away.

                        I love DJP wines, their Mencía, which is just exquisite. I've got a few of those now with age. Mencía is an extraordinary Spanish variety, but can it age for a long time? I don't know. From my experience in tasting that, it's really good at five to eight years. That's not a long time, but in a lifetime, it's actually good to try that, and it does change. Any wine's going to change if you cellar it for a few years. That's the fun part.

Speaker 2:     If you're seeking more cellaring inspiration, tasting notes and behind-the-scenes exclusives with James Halliday, visit winecompanion.com.au. Podcast listeners can also receive a free one-month digital membership by simply quoting ‘podcast' at the checkout. Terms and conditions apply.

Amelia:           It's been awesome to use this podcast series to cover off so many different areas involved with cellaring. It's uncovered some excellent insider tips on how to buy well and approach our wine collections. It's also reminded me, yet again, to just open the damn bottles and enjoy my wine. We hope it's inspired you to assess what you've got going on in your own collections and ultimately drink better.

This series was made possible by Langton's. Find them online at langtons.com.au and thanks to all of our guests, James, Campbell, Tamara, Luke, Jasper and Jane. As always there's a wealth of information on the website, winecompanion.com.au. 

I'm Amelia Ball. Thanks for listening.