Aspen Times Weekly: Drinking wines of a certain age

by Kelly J. Hayes


2010 Abeja Heather Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley

Perhaps I should have held this wine a bit longer, like maybe a decade. But when the sun came out after weeks of rain here in Old Snowmass, I felt like celebrating, and my hand found the neck of this bottle in my rack.

Made by John Abbott, one of Washington state’s great winemakers, from 100 percent estate-grown cab on the Abeja vineyards in Walla Walla, Washington, it lit up with my grilled flank steak. With fruit both red and black, earth that is ancient and a finish that lingers long, this wine was a joy on an early-summer Saturday.

“That’s F—ing awesome,” exclaimed the bald and bearded son of Italy as he put his prominent nose into the glass of rust-colored wine. Following a heavy intake of the aromas, a solid swirl and a second equally intense inhalation, his head rose from the glass. The look in his eye was one of total intoxication.

Yes, wine of a certain age has its charms, and at an impromptu gathering of wine lovers on a recent Tuesday evening at L’Hostaria, hosted by owner Tiziano Gortan and sommelier Carlos Valenzuela, age was to be celebrated. My wife and I had been invited to stop by for a bite and a bit of wine, but we did not know that this was to be a “work” session for the staff and some of the local wine community.

When we arrived, there were six decanters on the table, each marked with a number on a piece of tape. The slightly orange, brick color of the wines was the giveaway on first glance that these wines would be older than the majority of the people at the table. Me excluded, of course.

Opening, decanting and consuming older wines can be a hit-or-miss experience. On the one hand, it is an extraordinary opportunity to taste a wine that is just coming into its prime of life, and it is also a chance to appreciate the work of winemakers who may no longer be with us but were in the prime of their lives when they made those wines, even if that prime was decades ago.

But depending upon the provenance of the wines, how they have been handled and shipped and the conditions under which they have been cellared over the years, it is not uncommon to find an aged wine no longer in the shape hoped for. Bad corks, too much heat or cold and a variety of other circumstances can make drinking older wines potentially iffy and sometimes disappointing.

Fortunately for us, this would not be the case this evening.

We began with a 2003 Enzo Boglietti Tiglineri Dolcetto d’Alba from Piedmont, Italy, which Carlos poured from a magnum. This was a great way to begin the tasting.

But the immediate highlight was the crisp fríco that suddenly appeared from the kitchen. This decadent fried cheese dish is a specialty of Friuli, the region of Italy where Piero Zaramela lives. Piero, who once worked at L’Hostaria, was visiting and upon the first bite decreed the dish to be perfect.

“Finally, they got it right,” he said with obvious admiration as he looked at the fríco like it was a long-lost cousin. “The combination of aged Montasio cheese must be just right.”

I suspect the Livon Solarco, a white wine that Piero represents, made from a blend of Friulano and Ribolla Gialla grapes, would have been a sublime pairing.

As we reveled in our fríco, a crowd arrived. There was a local somm, a couple of Aspen wine merchants and a master sommelier from Boulder. Pleasantries were exchanged, spring jackets were shed, and the tasting began. The conversation dimmed as each decanter was poured and the tasters began to assess what was in their glasses. You could hear the sniffing around the tables as each of us began to inhale the wines.

“Barolo,” someone said about one of the wines.

“Traditional style, very old,” another piped in.

The bearded one was much more effusive: “It smells like one of those places they make shoes — like a what do you call it — a f—ing cobbler shop where there is the old leather and glue. That is what it smells like.”

He had nailed it. The leather and the natural esters combined with the taste of earth, tar and licorice over the years to make this Nebbiolo-based wine totally unique. One of a kind.

“Giacosa 1970,” someone said.

Close. When the silver wrapper was removed from the bottle, it revealed a 1967 Massolino Egidio Barolo from Serralunga d’Alba, a winery that has been making wines in the region since 1892. The sediment inside the bottle showed the beauty of aging. For 48 years, nearly half a century, this wine had rested, awaiting its opening. How ironic that this wine, which came to maturity on the vines of Piedmonte during the “Summer of Love,” would find its way to Aspen for its final dedication.

As we went through the wines (see box), amazingly, all of them showed well. None had been overly oxidized, the tannins were still present, and the flavors of the fruits of 1967 still lingered in the glasses. Tiziano explained to me that he had acquired these wines from New York’s Chambers Street Wines, one of America’s best wine shops in lower Manhattan. “It is easier to find good-quality, older Italian wines here in the U.S. than it is in Italy,” Tiziano explained. “So many have been bought and brought to New York, and there are shops and collectors who care for them.” Chambers Street is obviously one of those places.

As special as the wines were, so too was the polenta and Bagna Cauda served alongside them. The polenta was thick and creamy, and the Bagna Cauda — well, it was Christmas in May. Tiziano often makes this traditional Piedmontese dish for the restaurant staff (and his family) around the holidays in celebration. Translated literally as “hot bath,” Bagna Cauda is a dipping sauce made from oil, garlic and anchovies that is eaten with vegetables, potatoes and crusty bread all dipped into the fragrant sauce.

Simple and soulful. Just like the entire evening.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at

Aspen Times Weekly

WineInk: The 2023 vintage

“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.

See more