The luxury of establishing and maintaining a well-stocked wine cellar is just that – a luxury. Like any other much-loved hobby, it pays terrific dividends to those willing and able to invest the time, energy, patience and money required. But lacking a full throttle wine cellar does not mean you must deny yourself the opportunity to at least occasionally enjoy an older bottle.
First things first… most wines will not improve with time. Not being elitist here but… cheap wines (let’s say under $12) are almost always at their best when first released. The vast majority of rosés, wines in cans or tetra-paks or boxes are made for consumption immediately, meaning within a year or two of release. What you glug is what you get.
The wines reviewed on this website are a different breed. I’ll single out those I believe are especially suited for long term cellaring, but all of them (except some older library releases) will generally improve for at least another half decade, and many will evolve pleasurably for a decade or more.
A well-cellared bottle can unfold a wine that may have been austere or even impenetrable when it was first released. Case in point: about a week ago I was rooting around in my cellar and came across a bottle of Woodward Canyon’s 2006 Estate Red. The back label listed the blend as 42% Cab Franc, 35% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Petit Verdot, all from estate-grown grapes. Such sophisticated Bordeaux-style blends were almost unheard of in Walla Walla back in 2006. I wonder how this is doing I asked myself. Only one way to find out!
Even at 16+ years old the wine remained pretty closed down when I opened it. I poured a glass and decanted the rest; leaving it in the open decanter for 24 hours before re-tasting it on the next day. Believe it or not it was better by far. Aromatic, textured, with slightly grainy tannins and a mix of plush pastry fruits, it was a tribute to great winemaking and the pleasures of maintaining a wine cellar.
In order to plan even a modest cellar you need a small storage space that is protected from direct sunlight, exposure to heat vents, and is more or less temperature controlled. It should never get below 50 degrees or above 70 degrees unless you plan to invest in a cooling unit. For years I kept wines in a basement closet in Seattle, resting on cheap wooden shelves in cardboard boxes. Believe me the wine doesn’t care what it’s stored in; it’s how it’s stored that matters.
A wine cellar is very much like a garden. It may be large or small, simple or complex, but in order to really serve its full purpose it needs tending. Once embarked on the journey, you will find that you experience a subtle but profound mind shift regarding the selection and purchase of wine. Rather than grabbing some cheap plonk that happens to be case-stacked next to the Doritos, you will find yourself taking a pleasant moment or two to contemplate a variety of possible choices in your cellar.
It goes without saying that in order to establish a wine cellar you must keep your hands off it long enough for it to build up. If you are starting from scratch, set a reasonable ramp-up curve for expansion. It could be as little as one extra bottle purchased a week, as much as a case a month. Consider your personal consumption patterns, budget, and specific interests when deciding what to lay down. But remember that red wines are a safer bet than dry white wines so you’ll probably want most of your cellar devoted to reds.
When I began I bought the best wines I could afford to lay down, and skimped on those destined for immediate drinking. This ensured that my cellar would not only grow in size, but also in quality. I bought multiple quantities: at first two bottles, then three, then four, and finally six. I found that half cases are just right for wines that I expect to age for up to ten years. I would drink the first bottle soon after purchase, to taste the young, fresh fruit. After that, I pulled out a bottle every couple of years, to see how it was aging, and by the time I reached the last bottle, the wine had matured nicely but was unlikely to be over the hill.
Note also that wherever you buy wine, case discounts are almost always offered.
Guessing the aging curve of any particular wine is just that – a guess. Ultimately it’s a reflection of the grape(s), the vintage, the vintner and the provenance. The less a wine has traveled, the better its chances to evolve beautifully in the bottle. There is no perfect age for drinking any wine, and if there were, how would you know when it was? Development over time is a continuum, from primary fruit flavors and unintegrated barrel and tannin components, to mid-life wines with secondary fruit flavors and more complex aromas, to older wines with a range of herbs and spices and dried fruit flavors. Some wines just get old, but when you taste one that has dramatically improved it’s like striking gold.
With a cellar you can enjoy your wines throughout their evolution rather than waiting for some mysterious moment when they are “ready” to drink. Any winemaker will assure you, they are ready as soon as you pull the cork. And there will be more made next year, should you run out.
Is a wine cellar worth the time, the trouble and the expense? Like any garden, the answer depends upon the gardener.
My notes on Todd Alexander’s Holocene Pinot Noirs go back almost four years. I am re-publishing the notes and scores I did for Wine Enthusiast on the 2017 and 2018 vintages. The latest notes are for the 2021’s which are still available for purchase. Click on the winery name above for a link to the website.
Holocene 2017 Memorialis Pinot Noir
This is a new, under-the-radar project from Force Majeure winemaker Todd Alexander. The grapes are sourced from the Monks’ Gate vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton. Lush aromatics roll from spicy cranberry into rich strawberry, blueberry and red plum, along with details of baking spices and composted earth. Hints of herbs continue on through the finish. Fermented with native yeast, it was finished in 25% new French oak. 92/100
Holocene 2017 Apocrypha Pinot Noir
This is a new, under-the-radar project from Force Majeure winemaker Todd Alexander. The grapes are sourced from Antiquum Farm. This is a spicy, sleek wine with a strong mineral component. The fruit is ripe, dense and precise, conjuring up brambly raspberry, blackberry and a bit of sandstone. Barrel aging adds sweet baking spices to a lingering finish. Fermented with native yeast, it was finished in 25% new French oak. 93/100
Holocene 2018 Memorialis Pinot Noir
This is the fourth vintage for this Pinot Noir project from Force Majeure winemaker Todd Alexander. It’s a single vineyard cuvée (vineyard unidentified) with lush and inviting aromas of ripe raspberries and a whiff of chocolate. It’s a pretty wine, lightly spicy (aged 17 months in one third new French oak) and more fruit-centric than expressive of a particular terroir. What’s most impressive is the elegant way it captures the ephemeral majesty of the grape. 93/100
Holocene 2018 Apocrypha Pinot Noir
This is the fourth vintage for this Pinot Noir project from Force Majeure winemaker Todd Alexander. It’s a single vineyard cuvée (vineyard unidentified) with incredible aromatic intensity emphasizing lush blackberry and marionberry fruit. There’s a compelling sweetness to both aromas and flavors, the powerful fruit accented with a dusting of savory herbs. This wine keeps adding length and complexity as it breathes open, and may continue to improve over the next half decade or longer. 94/100
Holocene 2021 Memorialis Pinot Noir
This wine carries a more specific AVA than the companion Apocrypha though the actual vineyard sources are not disclosed. Aromatic and penetrating, with luscious brambly red fruits, this deftly mixes those slightly candied fruit flavors with broader highlights of Dr. Pepper, hot cinnamon candy and lemon drops. Wow – a lot going on here. Give this one a good look over plenty of time. Still drinking well on day four! 260 cases; 13.5%; $65 (Yamhill-Carlton)
Holocene 2021 Apocrypha Pinot Noir
Specific vineyard source(s) remain undisclosed but in past vintages Antiquum Farm was the site. This young wine is firmly rooted in blue and black fruits, supple yet forceful, with ample and balanced acids and polished tannins. The dense tangle of sous-bois, herbs and earth elements underlying all of the above points toward biodynamic farming, which would make sense if it’s Antiquum. It’s a full-bodied, captivating wine that may require some years to unfold. Drink now through mid-2030s.140 cases; 13.8%; $65 (Willamette Valley)
Here’s a rundown of the first releases from the 2021 vintage. Note that Ken’s prices have barely budged in years. Even better, a further discount (down to $55) is offered to club members.
Ken Wright 2021 Bonnie Jean Vineyard Pinot Noir
Young as it is this wine already has the rich, dense and expressive aromas of a wine with a half decade behind it. The alcohol remains low, which allows more subtlety and elegance across the entire 2021 portfolio. Lightly cooked cherries, baking spices and delicate touches of floral highlights cut across the palate. One fifth of the barrels were new. The youth shows mostly in the edgy tannins, which will smooth out with another couple of years in the bottle or aggressive aeration. 679 cases; 12.8%; $65 (Yamhill-Carlton)
Ken Wright 2021 Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir
Tart, racy raspberry fruit shines here, backed with juicy acids that mix Meyer lemon and blood orange. Beautifully defined and precise, this wine should cellar quite well indefinitely. Meanwhile, decant it and enjoy it for its ebullient youth. 667 cases; 13.3%; $65 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Ken Wright 2021 Savoya Vineyard Pinot Noir
This fresh and berry-laden wine bursts forth with a mix of rhubarb, cranberries and raspberries. The acids are softened and smooth, underscoring a palate-prickling hint of jicama. Complex and captivating, this elegant wine continues to expand and add layers as it breathes open. 503 cases; 13.2%; $65 (Yamhill-Carlton)
Ken Wright 2021 Canary Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir
Among the oldest vines (planted 1983) in Ken Wright’s single vineyard series, Canary Hill also benefits from its Pommard clones. It’s juicy and fresh, crisply defined with flavors of just-picked wild berries backed with vivid citrus. Aging in 20% new French oak puts a lightly toasty frame around it, nicely balanced against the ripping acids. I would guess it’s best days are a half decade away. 608 cases; 13.5%; $65 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Ken Wright 2021 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir
Now more than three decades since it was first planted, the Shea vineyard is as iconic in Oregon as any site can claim to be. Dozens of wineries seek these grapes, and it’s a pleasure to see what a veteran such as Ken Wright can do with them. He keeps the alcohol low, yielding a bright, savory, spicy wine anchored in brambly berries and tannins reminiscent of herbal tea. Complex and a bit unyielding, this is a wine to aerate aggressively if you are planning to drink it any time soon. Tasted on the second day it was slowly gaining volume. 1432 cases; 12.8%; $65 (Yamhill-Carlton)
I have no significantly older Ken Wright Shea Pinot but I did open a 2015 Purple Hands from Cody Wright.
Purple Hands 2015 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir
This is moving into secondary fruit flavors and showing some age in its coloring, but all in a good way. Though ultimate aging potential is unpredictable, there is an old saying that all red wines trend toward the same flavor, namely ‘old red wine’ so for me these intermediate stages are most interesting. Made by Cody Wright, this is a sturdy, balanced wine with strawberry/rhubarb fruit, firm acids and impressive length. It seems to gather concentration as it rolls through the palate, and lingers gracefully through a long finish.
Here is my original review from April of 2017: Purple Hands 2015 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir
Cody Wright sources his fruit from an A-list of Willamette Valley vineyards, and Shea is right at the top. Cloaked in a milk chocolate shell, this sophisticated wine melds blackberry fruit with flavor-extending streaks of cola and caramel. In scent and finish there is a slight, intriguing hint of pine sap. 300 cases; 13.5%; $50 (Yamhill-Carlton)
Apart from the consistency these two tasting notes reveal. the older wine shows the aging potential of the younger wine. Were I a betting man I’d bet that Ken Wright’s 2021 Shea will be showing particularly well in the next six to eight years. Time will tell.
I’ve been digging into the cellar to revisit older wines. Recently I’ve had a lot of winners, which led me to this post singing the praises of wine cellars (or repositories for those who lack an actual cellar). These Shea Chardonnays from three past vintages were the most recent finds. These notes are from repeated tastings this week. On my Substack you’ll find the scores and also a look at the original reviews from when they were first released.
Shea 2013 Shea Vineyard Chardonnay
Here is everything you could hope for in a 10 year old Chardonnay. The acids keep the overall structure firm and balanced. The new barrel flavors are fully integrated, adding a nutty, oily richness to the mouthfeel, and the vineyard’s exceptional fruit has held up beautifully. The tannins are tight, ripe and frame the finish. It’s poised and perfect at the moment, with a long, lingering aftertaste. It could age still further but this may be where it holds fast. Still my favorite on the second day.
Shea 2014 Shea Vineyard Chardonnay
As with a number of 2014s this seems to have thinned out a bit. It’s precise, focused, lightly buttery with a frame of toasted almonds. An elegant wine, still good lively fruit, but it may be at or near its peak. On the second day it did flesh out with more of that appealing buttered popcorn flavor. I bumped it up a point.
Shea 2016 Shea Vineyard Chardonnay
This is full-bodied and rich with appealing minerality. The fruit is a dense mix of tightly-wound fruits – apple, pear, peach and green melon, augmented with buttery, toasty barrel flavors. This seems to be a bit shut down at the moment. Tasted again on day two the impressions remained the same.