Wine collectors love to talk about their oldest treasures, and people who know little about wine often ask wine lovers what the oldest bottle of wine is they’ve tasted.

Many wine lovers have an obsession with age, as if drinking a young wine is a faux pas, a social misstep that costs the wine snob brownie points.

This is absurd. Some of my most enjoyable moments have come with straight-from-the-fermentation tank whites.

Yet there is a lot of enjoyment, too, from a properly aged red wine, and for that purpose many people buy cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux to age. Some are seeking a red wine to lay away for the 21st birthday of a son or daughter, from a birth year.

The problem with this is obvious: Often it’s not possible to tell early on which producer made a wine structured sufficiently to age 21 years. Some wines age better than others, and the saddest thing is to pick the wrong wine, one that at age 21 is faded and lacks any charm.

Most California cabernets these days are being made so ripe and fruity they may not have the structure to reach 21 in good condition. In retrospective tastings we have done over the decades, few wines at age 10 are particularly tasty.

One wine that usually pleases at age 21 is Barolo, a fact of which I was reminded about a year ago when we opened a bottle of a 1987 Barolo from our cellar that was just opening up.

Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape, which typically makes a hard, tart, compact wine that when young tastes of roses and tar, black cherries and earth, and offers probably the most astringent mouthfeel of any fine red wine.

Because Nebbiolo is so tannic when young, it is hard to judge. One can only guess at how such a wine will taste at age 10, 15 and 20, but from my experience, a properly made and well-aged Barolo or its cousin, Barbarsesco, are among the most consistently pleasurable old wines.

Even storied Bordeaux, with its grand traditions dating to the middle of the 19th century, usually doesn’t have the power to deliver this much flavor at age 20 and 30.

To be sure, a great (top-growth) Bordeaux from a great vintage is an exceptional experience after decades of perfect storage. I have had sensational bottles of 1945 Mouton, 1949 Lafite and 1961 Petrus — so clearly 40 or even 50 years for the best wines of the region isn’t a problem.

At least equal in terms of aging is Barolo, even though the region didn’t begin to make wine with much consistency until the 1950s. Before that, Piemonte was still making wine rustically, and thus a number of the wines aged rather unevenly, and some were downright musty.

However, by the early 1960s, the best producers were cleaning up their act, and one of the most exciting wines I ever tasted was a 1964 Barolo from Marcarini, a simply astounding wine.

We have in our cellar great examples of Barolo from the late 1960s and mid- to late-1970s, and when the wines are from good houses and good vintages, they are a true joy to consume.

A few of the traditional producers who do a great job include Aldo Conterno, Ceretto, Vietti, Bruno Giacosa, Renato Ratti, and Voerzio.

The main problem with these wines is their rock-hard nature when young. Some believe that the wines ought to be made less hard and astringent, so they can be consumed earlier, at age 10 to 20.

To pursue that goal, about two decades ago some young winemakers, called the innovatorre, explored a more modern style of Barolo. The wines were still rigid when young, but they showed a bit more breadth and accessibility at an earlier stage.

I still prefer the older style of wine and am willing to wait the years it would take for them to “come around.”

However, almost all good Barolo is expensive. Few worth cellaring can be found under $50 a bottle and some of the best are well over $100. I would be wary about buying any Barolos selling for $20 or less. At prices that low, chances are, there’s something wrong with the wine.

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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.


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