On those rare occasions when I have the chance to drink an old wine, I feel as if all the other wines I drink are not really wine at all. This is unfair: Many wines are, of course, meant to be consumed young, and other wines that are meant to age for a long time are interesting and delicious long before they reach their “optimal” stage.

A more tolerant, open-minded, objective me would say that wines drunk young and wines drunk old are just in two different categories. Yet the subjective me knows this distinction is both accurate and not quite true. At any given moment our senses are pulling in mere fractions of the available information, while the real world seethes and pulses beneath the surface. An old wine peels back the skin of the perceivable, reveals what had been ignored.

Not enough of us drink old wines, because we all lack some combination of information, resources, access and patience. Good wineries with long histories and deep pockets do sometimes hold back older vintages, releasing them at some point to cherished restaurant partners, auction houses or club members.

The auction-based market for well-preserved wines of a certain age is active, but you and I aren’t ordinarily granted admission to it. Unless you’re quite well off, or manage the wine program at a deep-pocketed, wine-proud restaurant, your main recourse to a good old wine is to buy a bottle and let it get old.

There are the traditional producers in Rioja, famous for reserving their better bottles several years longer than the great estates in other regions. These generous souls are confident they know better than consumers when their wines are ready to drink and are kind enough to bear the financial burden for guiding them.

These may be prominent examples, but in the larger picture they’re uncommon. Most wine is made in autumn, matured in winter and spring, aged a year or two at most, and then released to the market, often with a slightly disingenuous recommendation that the wine should remain unopened for five to 15 years.


A typical wine magazine capsule review reads, “This firm, broad-shouldered red, perfect for a steak, shows impressive purple fruit and bracing tannins, which will integrate over time. 94 points. $24. Drinking range: 2019-2032.” You know what most of us do with that last bit of information? Ignore it, and pop the cork tonight. And maybe solidify a misperception that something so audacious and fruity is what wine is supposed to taste like. (Point scores usually indicate a mysterious combination of present deliciousness and potential seriousness, an undermentioned double meaning responsible for much confusion.)

As I’ve written before, one of the best open secrets in wine is that there are many, many relatively inexpensive wines, both white and red, that can be aged beneficially for at least several years. If you’ve got $15 to $20 every once in a while that you can spend on a bottle of wine you won’t drink for four to seven years, you can enter aged wine’s realm of grace. It’s not difficult but it does require some effort and faith, through a number of steps.

There is a rare opportunity at present, though, which bypasses those steps. It sounds almost too good to be true: You can buy, right now, for $30 to $40, impeccably stored red and white wine from the 1980s and 1990s.

The wines are from an old cellar in Portugal. There are more than a million bottles in this cellar, dating back to 1959, though what is currently available in Maine is from just two years, 1980 and 1995. The winery is Caves São João, founded in 1920 in central Portugal’s Bairrada. Caves São João was one of several negoçiant businesses that flourished in the early 20th century, making wines out of grapes purchased from smaller growers and selling them in bulk to the diverse markets in Portugal’s many colonies.

As those colonies gained independence in the 1950s, Portugal’s fast-track export markets narrowed, and Caves São João’s wines began to pile up in the cellar. One of the great things about the traditional European wine economy is that established estates have stable, relatively low expenses and can afford to do this.

If it were all a lot of old bulk wine, by now it would be vinegar. But intelligently, and luckily for us, along the way Caves São João had developed two nonbulk, high-quality lines, as well: Frei João in Bairrada, and Porta dos Cavaleiro in the Dão. Later, they added a third quality line, purchasing the Quinta do Poço do Lobo estate in Pocariça.


These wines had even less luck in a postcolonial marketplace, as it seems that until recently the Caves São João proprietors had little inclination, or sharpened knack, to develop stable export markets. The quality wineries continue to produce wines, released in the conventional way a year or two after bottling, but the older bottles have remained behind, in an impressively dusty, cobweb-festooned set of underground rooms.

With this library of wines beginning to bulge, and aware of an increasing interest domestically in old wines, Caves São João began releasing the old vintages to the market – first in Portugal, then abroad – with the dusty cobwebs removed and authentic replica labels firmly affixed.

So, here we are. None of these three wines is the living miracle you hope for whenever you encounter a wine made in a far-off land when you were in elementary school. Still, all of them are first of all sound, then also complex, layered, fascinating, narrative – and also sheer pleasure to drink. Do not drink them by yourself, for they will both stimulate and merit long, appreciative discussion.

A few other practical considerations are necessary. Remove the corks slowly; they’re high-quality (Portuguese!) corks, but they’ve been working hard. If some cork falls in the bottle, pour the wine through cheesecloth into a decanter. Each of these wines must be decanted no matter what. That’s in part to let the sediment settle, but it’s mostly because after all this time under wraps the wines are desperate for some deep breaths. You’ll be amazed by how much acidity and edgy mineral aspect are still evident, and these need a few hours mingling with oxygen before they’ve knit sufficiently into the wine.

Also, while the wines have surely transformed dramatically over the past 20 or 35 years, they continue to evolve, in different directions and at difference paces, once the cork is pulled. Decant in the morning. Taste in the afternoon. Drink a glass, slowly, at night.

Preserve the rest of the bottle, with a cork, in the refrigerator, and return to it repeatedly over the next three days. If this sounds to you like an agonizingly paltry amount of wine to drink at a given meal, you could do a lot worse than opening both of the reds at the same time and watching how they diverge and converge. Unlike many very old red wines, the Porta dos Cavaleiro and Frei João do not fall apart after being opened; they actually take this half-week or so to tell their whole stories.


At a spiritual level, that’s what good old wines do. At a practical level, what they do is merge harmoniously with a spectacular array of foods. A good dish, whether simple or intricate, expresses balance and integrity. It’s the rare young wine that can attain or express these, for the same reason that it’s the rare young person who can. Aged wines get beneath the noise, to a core equanimity that can coordinate quietly with a good dish. This can be anything from a small piece of cheese to fish tacos to a cassoulet. Let balance meet balance.

Caves São João Poço do Lobo Arinto 1995, $29, is a white wine in name, though its hue is a lovely amber. It’s pungent and savory, betraying distinct oxidative notes but still startlingly fresh. Barely a hint of fruit remains. Instead, it’s the sea and the earth: brine, hay, green olive, cow. Without food it comes across somewhat austere, but with shellfish, poultry, strong vegetables and aged cheeses, it’s dreamy.

Caves São João Porta dos Cavaleiros Tinto 1980, $33, is limpid, soft, seamless. It feels deeply, warmly old, though it surprised me by staying interesting even longer than the other red, which came on with more vigor and presence at first. This Dão tinto, a blend of alfrocheiro, jaen, tinta roriz, baga and preto de mortagua, is content to hit from the baseline. The flavor profile is brothy, like a restorative duck stock, with some dried plum countered by good balsamic acidity and incredibly sweet, silky tannins.

Caves São João Frei João Tinto 1980, $40, is 100 percent baga from Bairrrada, and hence the stoutest of the bunch. If the Porta dos Cavaleiros is somewhat Burgundian, the Frei João is Bordelaise, specifically like a cabernet-heavy Left Bank Bordeaux. It presents much of the dust and worn-in leather that the region’s wines are known for, and even the minty freshness that often accompanies them. It’s the most up-front wine of the bunch – more black fruit, much firmer tannins – and therefore perhaps the easiest to love.

Joe Appel is the Wine Buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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