Drinking Younger

After returning from Bordeaux a couple of weeks ago, the booze to wine analogies still spinning in my mind, I tasted the new Kilchoman expressions (featured in yesterday's post) and eventually sent out an email about their arrival. One of the first responses I got read:

Kilchoman has been open for over ten years now. When are they going to release a ten year old?

While I'm sure there's a ten year old cask of whisky sitting somewhere in their warehouse, the answer to that question is probably: NEVER. The folks at Kilchoman were pretty clear about that fact when they started. The philosophy was simple: they were going to take smaller heart cuts off the still to create a finer spirit that should in theory taste better in its youth. And they succeeded. Mission accomplished. Why would they stray from that core mindset now? Their model was never the 10, 12, 15, and 18 year old portfolio. To be honest, I think anyone trying to replicate that formula now is likely setting themselves up for failure. The booze business is a very different place these days. The landscape has changed entirely and Kilchoman isn't the only producer taking smaller cuts to produce a more accessible liquid. The entirety of Bordeaux is doing the same.

I've written about second wines before over at the On the Trail blog, but let's briefly cover them here again. In the 1980s and for centuries before that, a property like Château Latour made one wine: Latour. Every single grape on every single vine went into this cuvée, including many of the stems and sticks still stuck to the fruit. The best grapes went in, along with the worst. It was all about maximizing yields and the wines were tannic and bold as a result. Often they needed thirty years or more in a temperature-controlled cellar before they began to soften up. Today, however, things have completely changed both in the vineyard and in the bottle. Today a property like Château Latour starts by green harvesting, meaning they clip some of the weaker grapes early on to allow the vines to better concentrate the healthy berries. The result is fewer grapes, but better grapes overall—quality over quantity. They also make three wines, not one: Latour, Les Forts de Latour, and Pauillac—all from the same property that formerly produced only one singular wine.

The grapes are now hand-picked, the stems removed, and only the finest candidates make it into the grand vin. After the best grapes have been singled out for the top cuvée, a second harvest is rounded up for the second wine, and then what's left goes into the third wine. Something like that. But the point here is that all the vines being harvested—regardless of which wine the grapes end up in—were formerly used to make a first-growth wine. Today, they're organized and sorted into three wines and the production methods have never been more advanced. The result? The wines taste better and are more approachable in their youth than they likely have been in three centuries of practice. Every château does this now. Every top estate has a second wine. Palmer has the Alter Ego. Haut-Bailly has Le Parde. Ducru-Beaucaillou has La Croix. 

Common knowledge of Bordeaux maturation based on the long history of aging its wines would tell you that top wines like Latour need decades in the cellar before reaching their peak potential. But, again, that was based on decades of experience with wines that were made in a completely different fashion. Drinking a bottle of Latour within ten years of its vintage would have been considered infanticide in the 1990s. Today, however, it's not so crazy. We drank 2005 Mouton Rothschild and 2008 Haut-Bailly at our Bordeaux dinner event in the city this past Monday and the wines were stunning. I spoke to a microdistiller named Christopher Briar Williams this week who owns Coppersea Distillery in New York. He's also making spirits on a smaller scale that taste incredibly approachable in their youth. "At some point there was a culinary agricultural process where someone decided to increase the scale of production. I’m interested in what has been lost," he said to me towards the end of the conversation. 

For me, I'm interested in what's been gained. Time, perhaps.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll