How old is old?

Aged wines are something of an acquired taste.  They set up all sorts of conflicts.  Unless you are very fortunate or rich, laying down wines for the future is only for the patient.  Buying something that will be at its peak in 10, 20 or more years is extremely counter cultural.  Then of course there is the big decision on when to drink the wine – unless you have bought a case, it’s all or nothing.  Finally, there is the matter of taste – do you actually prefer young fruit-led wines or the bready aromas of aged champagne, the distinctly farmyard smells of old Pinot Noir or oxidized styles of old sherries and Vin Santo? 

A few recent bottles illustrates some of these dilemmas. 

Selvapiana Bucerchiale Chianti Rufina riserva 1998 This bottle illustrated the adage that simply ageing a wine will not make it great.  Most wine is best drunk young.  This riserva from one of Rufina’s best IMG_4230 growers may have been one of them despite its pedigree from an excellent winery in one of Chianti’s most northerly (and usually age-worthy) areas.  But if it’s a poor year to start with, the wine may just not have the fruit to develop, and that was the problem here.  Despite several hours in a decanter during which cleaned up a slight off smell in the bottle, it never really sang.  Remaining refreshing acidity but mono-linear. Disappointing. 

As commented on in the previous post, the expensive (£120) Taittinger Comtes des Champagnes 1998 still tasted rather closed – so in this case ‘old’ probably means a twenty year weight, rather than ten.  By contrast, 1999 Pannier Egerie is now ready to drink being in that fascinating state of tension between youth and decline, freshness and bottle age.  The sharp apples of the fruit were complemented by mushroomy notes and nice weight in the mouth.  To add to these treats a very generous host recently shared Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’or 1998 with us.  Feuilatte is widely available as a entry level Champagne in supermarkets but also has prestige lines of which this is the top offering.  Quite a lot of money had gone on the packaging – special plastic outer capsule, then a honeycomb style bottle.  The wine itself showed real class in the glass with a persistent mousse of ultra fine bubbles.  On the nose it was in mid-life, pastries and yeastiness and then rounded and civilized on the palate.   Probably the right time  to drink it – limited prospect of further development. 

here for the long term? Red Burgundy certainly repays ageing, again if it is of sufficient quality to start with.  At a recent Caviste tasting a Vallet Frères Gevrey Chambertin 2000 was superb – the lovely raspberry and redcurrant fruit now accompanied by a perfect accompaniment of earthly, composty goodness … Not old but perfectly mature.  As we like to think of ourselves. 

Finally, there are a small handful of wines made for the very, very long haul – they make all the preceding wines seems like children in the nursery.  Chenin Blanc can make almost every sort of wine from supermarket shelf-filler, to fizz, to grand white to off-dry or sweet wine that will outlast most of us.  Richard Kelley, an expert on the wines of the Loire, showed a range of these marathon wines for a Caviste tasting of the wines of Domaine Huet in Vouvray, Loire, France.  The reasons for their extreme longevity is the high level of malic acid in Chenin Blanc and then the northern latitude of the Loire.  All the acidity is retained and the wines are aged for decades in bottles; most will have residual sugar to offset the acidity.  Though I didn’t get to the full tasting, Richard still had a precious few drops of:

1947 Le Haut Lieu Moëlleux – as I tasted these wines in the hurly burly of a crowded shop, I am going to quote Richard Kelley’s own tasting note to give some idea of the complexity of these old wines:

1947 Le Haut Lieu Moëlleux (original cork)
The most highly respected Loire vintage of the 20th Century and in Gaston Huet’s own words ‘The greatest vintage I ever made’. The harvest commenced on the 19th September. Polished. Complex appearance with orange bronze moving to olive green at the rim. A mature nose with some positive oxidation. Complex and smoky with aromas of brown sugar and cinnamon. Beautiful on entry, it has poise and perfect balance. It is delicate, elegant, textured with a fresh, pure apple purée nose combined with toffee apples, crème brûlée and pommeau. There is a pure, racy acidity that contributes to the incredible length and persistence. This will continue to age indefinitely. A perfect wine. (08/04)

1938 Haut Lieu Demi-Sec – it’s difficult to believe that this bottle is more than 70 years old and still going strong, but it is.  You might be relieved to hear that it is beginning to plateau! Kelley says: 

Mid-full and polished appearance. Yellow/orange. Exotic nose with dried oranges and a mineral edge. Some mushroom, but retains good fruit to the palate. Bone dry on entry and finish with severe, but not unpalatable acidity. Quite simple. Drinking now or soon. (07/06)

1990 Clos du Bourg Moëlleux 1ere Trie.

By comparison, a babe in arms: easy to appreciate, lush, sweet, ripe apples, excellent acidic finish. In this company the strapping 19 year old comes over like a mere youth. 

There are many yet older wines still available – port, madeira, claret.  Michael Broadbent’s classic Vintage Wine. Fifty years of tasting over three centuries of wine is an excellent guide.  But these few bottles at least begin to  open up the complex question of how old is old – at least in terms of wine.

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