It seems like everybody and their brother has a birthday in August. Do orgies happen during the holidays, yielding happy bundles nine months later? I counted 12 festive occasions in August amongst my friends and family, requiring enough gifts to further drain my dwindling money market. But when cash is no object, a unique birthday offering is a bottle from the person’s birth year. Perfect for that special someone whose closet is jammed with useless Brookstone gadgets, a birth-year bottle screams cache. And, hey, it comes complete with a buzz.
Really long-lasting wines are red or fortified. Sure, some white wines age well, but they are less stable, and, like a used car, only the previous owner knows their care.
The most stable aged wine is port, a sweet, fortified dessert wine. Designed to withstand abuse, port has a higher alcohol level that insulates it from spoilage. Port vintages are “declared” when the harvest is particularly notable, and this occurs only once or twice in a decade. So if your special someone’s birthday falls in the following years, grab one and make his/her day: 1934, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1955, 1963, 1966, 1970 and 1977.
However, much to my dismay, not everyone likes port. California Cabernet Sauvignons, in all their glory, aren’t as hearty as the French Bordeaux, but vintages as old as 1978 should be holding on. Older than that, you’re counting on a miracle that it was stored well. French Bordeaux, made with sturdy Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is another story. French wines age better and older vintages aren’t as rare. The best Bordeaux years are: 1945, 1947, 1959, 1961, 1962, 1970 and 1982.
For red Burgundys, you’re dealing with the wimpier, more delicate Pinot Noir grape. Its aging potential isn’t as high as Bordeaux reds. That said, there ain’t nothing much better than an earthy aged Pinot. Look for 1969 and 1978. One area often overlooked by casual wine lovers is the Southern Rhone Valley, where the legendary Chateauneuf du Pape originates. Made from the robustly tannic Syrah grape, these wines age to a smooth nuttiness, tinged with soft fruit. And, as far as gifts go, the labels are pretty cool too. Great vintages from the Southern Rhone are: 1945, 1959, 1961, 1971 and 1978.
Uncovering these aged beauties requires some savvy research and time. Start at your local fine wine shop, since sometimes they have a secret stock. They also may know if the local wine distributors have any in their warehouse. But the odds of these two options panning out are fairly low, so head to the Internet. Sites like Winebid.com, Morrellwineauctions.com, Winecommune.com and Wine-Searcher.com can be ripe areas for rare wines. On these sites, just type in the years you desire and see what pops up.
Once you get your hands on an oldie, keep in mind some tidbits to tell to your giftee: 1. Don’t hold on to the bottle. Enjoy it now. 2. Older wines normally have black sediment resting in the bottle’s bottom. It is perfectly harmless, yet not tasty. Avoid it by resting the bottle upright about an hour before opening, and then decant it by pouring the wine into a pitcher or carafe, making sure the flakes don’t make it past the bottle’s neck. 3. Finally, let the wine make contact with oxygen. Decanting helps, but also pour some into a glass to let it breathe before drinking.
Chateau St. Jean 2001 Sonoma Pinot Noir Has an initial musty nose that grows into black cherry mixed with smoke. Serve this one with a slight chill. $15. 3 stars.
Burklin Wolf 2001 Estate Riesling Peaches, peaches, peaches. Try this one nice and cold on a hot day, and brace yourself for the intense flavor. Yum. $16. 4 stars.