Gazin - Pilgrims, Young and Old
I have noticed on Instagram that there is almost an obsession with ancient bottles with crumbling corks and rotting labels. Time and again I see big labels from the 80s with the comment ‘still too young, try again in a decade.’ The experts also seem to decant them for hours. I am not sure whether it’s some form of inverse snobbery (after all, how many people have wines in their cellar that are thirty, forty, fifty years old?) or some visionary truth that the great wines seem to enjoy everlasting life.
We love to drink reds of over twenty years, and, yes, for the bigger wines in tougher years, they can sometimes ‘need’ more time, but once you get much beyond that you run into questions of storage, cork quality and, often, decline. The fruit goes, the structure gets bony, the tannin or acidity poking though like elbows through your sweater. Whilst the nose often hangs on longer, leaving you with a haunting hint of what once was, the palate often begins to fade towards mushroomy, vegetal obscurity.
Ultimately, it’s all a question of balance, and I disagree with many who seem to think that a tough, tannic old wine will blossom with extended age. Maybe, but often, as said, age just blurs what fruit there was and the harshness does not subside. Many 1975 Bordeaux were like that, and I find some 95s also. We drink a bottle of Chateau Margaux every May for our daughter’s birthday (you can guess her name – seemed a good idea when she was born and the wine was still affordable), but I have noticed that the 95 has always been hard and tough on the finish, and age is now making it more so. Sadly I will sell the last few bottles as I fear they are in gentle decline and not worth the price. It’s always exciting to put a legendary wine on the table, but not if it’s continually disappointing and frankly with the sale revenue I’ll be able to buy more and better wine.
When I see the words ‘classic vintage’ or, even worse, ‘austere’ on wines like cabernet, I worry. I sold my last 1988 Chateau Latour (bought for twenty pounds a bottle!) because even aged 30 they lacked the fruit to balance the tannin and, again, with age they just seemed to become more surly and ungracious. Perhaps they will, as some assert, miraculously slip into balance in another decade (aah, the terroir will work its magic?) but I can’t help suspect that is wishful thinking or simply good marketing.
There are some exceptions, like 1976, but that was the first great heatwave vintage. I can remember the playing fields at school being brown dust bowls. All that sun gave thick skins and hefty tannins, and in those days viticulture was nowhere near as advanced as now. But – and it’s a big but – there was always a lot of fruit, it was a heatwave vintage after all, and sun makes ripeness. So, yes, wines that at first seemed unbalanced did eventually ‘come round’ because they always had a ton of fruit in there to balance out. The trouble with some of the 86s, 88s, 95s etc is that they never had the necessary fruit in the first place, so I don’t see how it can materialise with age.
Pomerol, on the right bank of Bordeaux, was largely developed through the Middle Ages under the beneficent eyes of the Knights of Saint Jean (or Malta or Knights Templar). Legend has it that they built a manor house, church and Hospital of Pomeyrols for the pilgrims wearily trudging the route to Santiago do Compostela. These days instead of the Christian faithful seeking a bed for the night, you find merlot worshippers looking for wine on the fabled plateau of Pomerol, with its Gunzian gravels and blue and green clays. Great for water retention, great for merlot, and Chateau Gazin contains around 90% of it, the remainder being cabernets.
Clive Coates in his 1995 book ‘Grands Vins’ puts the ‘golden age’ of the chateau as the nineteenth century, sinking to a nadir in 1979 when they introduced machine harvesting, but then you have to remember that even 50 years ago Pomerol did not have the cachet it does today, and prices of Bordeaux in the 70s were low (if only…). But more recently a second wine was introduced (Hospitalet, after those knights) and Moueix (as in Petrus) took over sales in 1988.
I bought a case of the 2006 as, for a well-positioned Pomerol estate the prices remained reasonable. The wine is big, and, yes, full of fruit and ageworthiness I guess. It is dense, dark chocolatey, plummy, full of plummy ripe fruit, a hint of tobacco. It has hardly budged in the last three years and is on the monolithic side, so I have indeed put a couple of bottles away in the bottom of the cellar for the long haul, the advantage of the days when you could still buy a 12 bottle case of Bordeaux without needinga second mortgage. As an aside, the last bottle I had was slightly corked.
So when our generous Swedish friend Peter arrived with a 1978 I was more than intrigued. Just how would a 32 year old version taste, from an era when money was tight, winemaking constrained and, frankly, quality supposedly iffy? Or would that famed gravel and blue clay soil eventually work its spell? Were we going to be making excuses and trying to find something nice in a wine that was well past its prime and never that good, or would we be genuinely delighted?
The first glance was a huge relief. Red, still a luminous bright red, dark of course but not browned. No signs of excess age on the palette there. The nose? Ah, this is why you drink old wines, that ethereal smell that comes from decades of repose in a dark cellar, the fruit turning old and curranty, a perfume of old tea mixed with those characteristic bovrily, meaty tones of mature merlot. The fruit was still there, somewhere in the centre, ripe but heading towards dried fruit rather than fresh, almost sweeter as dried fruit is, the finish balanced with a tingle of acidity and, yes, a warning of mushroomy decline on the very finish just to remind you not to wait for much longer. Delicious and complex, a wine that shows that sometimes the elegant, multi-faceted wisdom gained with age can be even more pleasing than the exuberant vigour and beauty of youth.
I just hope that my 2006 ends up likewise. Oh, and me for that matter!