A lament for a wine long past its prime

BY JIM BEAUREGARD March 04. 2014 2:52PM

Long ago I decided that trashing a wine that was a particularly bad was not a particularly good thing to do in a wine column. I typically write about wines of good quality that are worth seeking out, and as a matter of course I tend to avoid even mentioning the stuff that's awful.

As a rule of thumb, you can always assume that something I placed here in the column is well worth seeking out, well made, but still in the end, a matter of personal taste. I may do a great write-up of particular Italian wine, but if you don't like the flavors of sour cherry or dust, then you may not like the wine. Move right along to the next one.

There is another problem that pops up from time to time that is worth mentioning. It is well known in the wine world that the overwhelming majority of wines are meant for early drinking, not for putting away to age and improve. Most of us tend to buy the wine we are having with supper the same day that we're going to drink it, and most wines are consumed within 12 hours of purchase. The long and short of it is, if you come across an everyday wine that has been on the shelf for three or four years, chances are that nature has run its course and the wine deserves a quiet burial rather than a pour.

This brings me to one of Italy's premier grapes, the astounding, glorious Nebbiolo. It's grown in Piedmont, throughout the Barolo region and when it's good it's great, making some of the world's finest wines including Barolo and Barbaresco. The name comes from the Italian word for clouds, reflecting the mists that cover the hills and valleys of Barolo many mornings in the spring.

But you need to know something about the grape and the vineyards in order to seek out its pleasures. The grape is usually presented in the traditional bottles of Barolo. It does happen, from time to time, that a harvest is not as good as hoped, and when it does the winemakers of Piedmont, not wanting to diminish the reputation of their flagship wine, bottle the wine and sell it as a Nebbiolo rather than a Barolo. That automatically makes it an early drinking wine rather than one to be put away for a future date.

Last week, Wendy brought home a Nebbiolo, specifically, Valfiere Nebbiolo d'Alba ($24), knowing that the grape makes a wine we both like. I was glad to hear it was a Nebbiolo, but then I noticed the date on the bottle: 2007. And therein lay the problem: A bottle labeled Nebbiolo is for early drinking. This one was harvested in 2007, and now it's 2014, making it 7 years old. This one would've been good until about 2009, and then its inevitable decline would have begun. It can't be avoided.

So, with trepidation, I removed the cork. There was only about a quarter-inch of red on the bottom of the cork, so the wine had not seeped through, opening itself up to the air and all the damage that that can do. Nevertheless, the wine had in fact died several years ago, and all that was left was aromas of sherry and flavors of vinegar. Needless to say, it went down the drain, though not without a measure of mourning for a wine that would've been a delight in 2008 (I bought a second bottle just to be sure; same result).

Time matters in the world of wine. If you are looking in the $10s and $20s range for a daily-drinking wine that you have not tried yourself, it's best to stay within a couple of years of the harvest date. Beyond that, your risk of being disappointed rises rapidly.

Not having tried it yourself is the key factor here. There are some wines that are made in 2007, inexpensively, that are still excellent now. The thing to do is try them at a tasting and see for yourself. If you're in a local wine shop and it's out to try before you buy, you know that it has already been sampled and has made the cut.

Short of that, if it's an everyday wine more than a couple years old that has been standing up, with the wine out of contact with the cork for several years, try something else.

I'm not going to tell you where I got it, because I assume that it was put on the shelves in good faith, but it's one that should be avoided, and one that a knowledge of wine can save you from.What's to be said in the end? I'll be on the lookout for a 2013 or 2014 Valfieri Nebbiolo, and will report in if I find it.

Contact local beer and wine writer Jim Beauregard at tastingnotesnh.com.


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