| More than Books in the Library
To most of us, a library scarcely sounds as exciting as a wine cellar. The former evokes images of strict ladies with their hair in buns, scolding us to be quiet, or an impending school assignment. The latter – unless we encountered Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” at a too-impressionable age – makes us think of an exciting variety of wines, perhaps even some old, rare bottle, hiding in a cobwebbed corner, waiting for us to decant it and savor it with a well-cooked meal.
Nonetheless, sometimes a winery holds back a portion of the wine from a given vintage for a number of years; when they sell it later, it’s typically called a “library release,” and it’s a great way to get your hands on a well-aged wine. No fussing around with auctions or the grey market. No worrying about the wine’s provenance – was it stored in a cellar, a closet, or a car trunk? Stored and aged at the winery is about as secure as you can get. However, library wines are not that common; sitting on stock is not the best way to create revenue, so a winery needs both storage facilities and financial resources to hold back on sales.
Who’s in that kind of position? Many Champagne houses, for one. For them, aging wines before release is part and parcel of the winemaking process, as spending time on the lees of the second, in-bottle fermentation is vital to the wine’s character. Many big-name producers have miles of cellars on hand, so space may not be that big a concern. A vintage Champagne, by law, must be cellared for three years before release, but many producers wait much longer; Krug and Salon, for example, only just recently released their 1996 vintage – and that’s not a library wine, just their normal procedure.
Moët & Chandon has put several older vintages of Dom Perignon on the market in the past few years, going as far back as 1966. They call the newly released wines "Oenotheque" – literally “wine storage,” in Greek, but evoking the French word for library, “bibliotheque.” Other vintages currently in the market place include 1993, 1985, and 1976. The pay-off becomes clearer once you get back into the wines from the 80s; the ’93, even though it’s fourteen years old, still needs to breathe a bit before you get the wine’s full expression. Sister company Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin calls their re-releases “Rare.” I’ve written previously about the 1985 Rare Rosé, and recently sampled the Rare 1988, which is showing lots of spice and fudgy notes, and is much more aromatic than many of the younger vintages.
Other Champagne houses offer similar programs. These wines don’t come cheap, but any wine from the 80s that’s still worth drinking is an indulgence. There’s also an important caveat to consider; all of the Champagnes offered in these programs were kept on the lees, which acts kind of like a natural preservative. If you had bought a bottle of, say, the 1985 Dom back when it first hit the market, and stored it in ideal conditions, and then opened it alongside a just-released ’85 Oenotheque, you’d find some substantial differences. The Oenotheque release would be fresher, with more acacia and fruit notes and a more vibrant mousse. The wine you aged yourself instead brings on more of the flavors you associate with aged Champagnes – nuttiness, biscuit or brioche aromas, and the like.
Outside Champagne you don’t have this discrepancy. For Californian wineries, library wines are often a feature of their wine club, and are unlikely to reach the usual retail market. Several Cab producers have offered wines from as far back as the early 90s – Corison, Burgess, and Cain Cellars, for example. For others, a library release can date from ‘99 or even after the Millenium; while the difference between a 2001 and a 2005 can be significant, I’m not sure these are worth the extra expense at times.
Rioja is another region that, like Champagne, is used to having wine sit around; a “Reserva” is aged at least three years before release, and a “Gran Reserva,” five years. But that’s just the start; Lopez de Heredía has wines from 1957 and 1964 on the market…and that’s their whites! A really old, old-school Rioja Blanco is an experience; not for everyone, to be sure, given it’s fat, almost oily, super-nutty character, but if you want an example of a traditional, oak-aged white wine outside Burgundy, this is the place to look. Their reds are also have the aromatic, red fruit, lighter-body qualities that age with elegance and finesse; again, if modern, round, rich Rioja is your usual, be prepared for something different.
Library releases are a worldwide phenomenon. Old, classic Barolo? Borgogno '82 and '78 are out there. Riesling? Some Alsace and German Riesling producers offer wines at about the ten year mark; if the light body and sweetness of the latter tends to bother you, a spätlese or auslese Riesling at ten years (or older) can be a revelation. The sweetness integrates with the acidity, creating a smooth, delicious mouthfeel – part of the texture instead of taste.
The truth is, most wines are consumed within a few years of release, and few wine drinkers get the opportunity to taste older wines; even if you’ve got deep pockets, the wines are already in someone else’s hands, and you don’t know how they’ve treated them. Library wines give sommeliers and restaurant owners a chance to make that experience a special part of their wine program, without the expense and hassle of auctions or the grey market; they can also be reordered if you sell out, whereas an 86'ed auction wine is gone for good. You can start buying and cellaring wines yourself, but what do you do in the fifteen years you’re waiting? Well, you can always go to the library.
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