In praise of (some) older wines

No doubt about it: people tend to drink their wines younger and younger. This trend does not preclude pleasure from these bottles, particularly since the whole wine production process has adapted to this major market demand, from the vineyard through to the preparation for bottling. I will mention a few of these improvements and interactions on another occasion perhaps. But I was brought up within another wine-loving framework, where fathers « laid down » good wines for their children, thus giving these selected bottles a predictable life-span of at least a generation before they were opened and, usually, decanted, at least in the case of red wines, particularly from Bordeaux and of course vintage ports. I did not benefit directly from this approach since my father, who was a wine-merchant all his working life, either drank or sold his cellar. Was I pissed off by that? Not at all: I think that he did the right thing!

So I have had to constitute my own (albeit haphazardly managed) cellar of older bottles and be patient while waiting for suitable moments and the right people with whom to share them. The latter is essential because older wines have become very much an « acquired » taste these days. Such an opportunity occurred just the other day during my summer break when we tend to have quite a few people, family and friends, around the table at dinner. I would like to write a bit about the three wines concerned, and not just about how they tasted but also about their particular connections for me, since wine is a personal experience at many levels, and not just the sensorial one.

Greek ships had eyes painted on their bows so that the ships could see

I have taken this double quote (it is itself a quote in the book) from a wonderful work that I am reading called Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels. And now, to sustain at least partially this heading, take a look at this from a very learned thesis published in 2006 by a student at the University of Texas, Troy Joseph Nowak:  « Study of references to ship eyes in Greek literature shows that they functioned as symbols of consciousness that guided the ship and helped in avoiding hazards. Thus, these symbols functioned as epiphanies, but the identity of the presence they represented can only be identified by associated iconography or texts. Studies of similar eye representations that appear on domestic articles and as architectural decorations suggest ship eyes may have served additional functions. An understanding and fear of envy, as well as a belief that it could harm through supernatural means, is documented by Greek and Latin authors as early as the 5th century BC. » 

So what has this got to do with wine? Perhaps not a lot directly, but it is certain that representation is as strong as reality for some people and at certain times. Maybe I should paint eyes on the door of my wine cellar, probably quite small ones as it does not contain that many bottles. More seriously, this belief shows that the mental framework is just as important as the physiological one, and this goes for wine tasting as much as for ships.

Here are the three wines that I shared with  about 6 others recently at dinner. It was a special occasion, and there were people there who could appreciate these bottles that I have had for some time.No cork problems, thankfully!

We obviously started with the magnum of Krug Vintage 1973 in the centre of the photograph. I think that I must have bought this in an auction about 30 years ago, and it was almost 45 years old at the time of drinking. Sadly I had only this magnum. Anyone who tells you that Champagne does not age should be ignored. Champagne of indifferent quality will not age gracefully, anymore than bad still wine, but fine Champagne, kept in a decent cellar, will gain great depth of flavours: layers and layers of them. This wine was a supreme example of that! It showed a lovely deep topaz colour, with a lightish bead and still plenty of freshness, but that is not all one is looking for in such an old Champagne. The aromas and flavours just kept coming, with nuts, gingerbread, orange peel, spices and dried stone fruit like apricots to the fore. Backing this up was a beautifully firm texture that, to me, still showed the impact of the fermentation in old oak barrels as is the custom at Krug. Symbolically I would have liked this to have been from the 1975 vintage as this was the year of my daughter’s birth (she was one of the party for this occasion), but I was very happy to settle for this glorious wine that could have been kept without any difficulty for at least another ten years.

Not included in the photograph is a Lafon Rochet 1975, as this was not so good: still hard and ungainly, without fruit or any other form of charm. We did not even finish the bottle! So many 1975s have turned out this way. I bought a mixed case from different châteaux quite a few decades ago on account of this family birth date and the only one that really shone out of the series was Cheval Blanc. I only had two bottles of that and they are now sadly gone.

Leoville Las Cases 1970 is a bottle that has a special memory for me, so I was happy when I managed to grab a few at a very reasonable price in an auction just about ten years ago. The first bottle that I tried from my purchase lot of six was a bit of a disappointment, but this one was so elegant and delicious that everyone loved it. The tannins had faded gently into a silky-smooth textured wine of great finesse, still fresh from its mature fruit-based flavours. Balance is everything in old wines which cannot just rely on power and impact to express themselves, and this wine was perfectly poised.

This photograph was surely taken well before 1989 but it does show Monsieur Huet, the then owner of this estate which still bears his name, in part of his vineyard during harvest. He was a very likable man whom I met once or twice.

We finished the dinner with what was easily the baby of the series at 19 years old: a sweet Vouvray from Domaine Huet and the vineyard called Le Haut Lieu in the 1989 vintage. In the case of many French appellations it can be difficult to know from the label of white wines whether they will be totally dry, off-dry, semi-sweet or sweet. The Loire appellation of Vouvray that makes all its wines from the Chenin Blanc variety has got it right however, as it clearly designates the sugar levels on the label. This one reads « moelleux » on its neck label, meaning sweet. Other official categories are « sec » (dry) and « demi-sec » (semi-sweet) and some producers also talk about « sec tendre » for wines which are off-dry. I wish that other regions would adopt such a system as it would make things easier for us consumers. The wine was delicious, once again not hugely powerful as the high sugar levels from this vintage had subtly combined with the chenin’s natural acidity to produce a sweet but not a luscious sensation on the palate. I would not say that we drank it before it’s time, as when a wine tastes good it is the right time, but this could surely have stayed in my cellar for a few more decades.

Anyone glancing at this short list of wines could well assume that I am just another « label drinker ». If you read other articles of mine on this blog (every Monday folks!), you would know better! But if I regularly try to defend good wines from anywhere and at all price levels, this does not signify that I reject famous ones. I do not have the money to buy such wines at current prices, but I can appreciate them for their, at times, exceptional qualities. And, twenty or more years ago, prices for these wines were not anywhere near current levels. As I have indicated here, one of the pleasures of older wines is the fact that they have softened from their initial, more direct and powerful, expression of flavours. In the best instances these wines have also gained in complexity. This was particularly the case with the Krug 1973. On the other hand, I am not saying that all old wines have this faculty. Many (most) would be well past their best at 40 years old, or even much less. It is to me even a bit of a mystery why some have this capacity for ageing so well whilst others, even from the same grapes and regions, do not. Naturally storage conditions are an essential part of this complex equation.

Under these ramparts of the former Château de Beaune lie some of Burgundy’s liquid treasures.  The buildings above are more recent and have been beautifully restored under the eagle eye of the late regretted Joseph Henriot.

Going back even further in time with wines that are a hundred years old or even more makes one enter another dimension that is not just about taste. I have, on a few rare occasions, had the good fortune to be able to taste such wines. Particularly on two occasions in Burgundy and with wines from the cellars of Bouchard Père et Fils, who must have the largest collection of very old Burgundies, all perfectly stored way underground and with their corks changed regularly (yes, corks are usually the major limiting factor in a wines ageing capacity). The oldest wine that I tasted there was a Meursault from 1846 (perhaps from the climat named Charmes, I cannot remember for sure) and it was a truly memorable experience, as indeed was a Beaune Vignes de l’Enfant Jesus 1889. In such cases one enters a kind of time machine and I can remember thinking that my grandfathers or great-grandfathers could have tasted these very same wines back in the 19th century. I could almost picture them! And yes, the wines were very good and still very much alive.

So, do appreciate older wines for their refinements, their complexity and their differences, but also for this almost unique capacity among all foodstuffs and beverages to allow one to travel backwards and also forwards in time whilst fully enjoying the present.

David Cobbold

2 réflexions sur “In praise of (some) older wines

  1. David van Zuilen

    Great testimonial !
    I had a similar experience with a Le Gay Pomerol 1967. It was purchased by my grandfather who I Nevers met as he died shortly after my birth. Found it in the cellar and it was a magical experience.

    J'aime

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