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In Praise of Time, Patience & Age

Paris on Sunday. It was an extraordinary match, an extraordinary atmosphere and an extraordinary achievement. The pavements were packed outside every bar in the rain, large screens blazing out the titanic almost biblical duel between the old and the new, the master and the pupil, the next generation of genius. The screams, the cheers and then the groans echoed around the city as exhausted, emotional supporters yelled themselves hoarse. And eventually, almost impossibly in this bizarre dream-like competition, the old man was anointed, and Lionel Messi took over from Maradonna. I guess they will now have to create a church to him too.

I am not a football fan, but you could not help but become carried away by it all, the sheer unlikeliness of the ever-fluctuating score line, the desperate, so deserved desire to win the ultimate title, the cussed skill of Mbappe that kept denying it. Epic stuff.

As we will be landing in Buenos Aires in a week, I will admit that I was happy to see the 35 year old sanctified, and it set me musing on probably the most exciting Argentine wine I’ve ever drunk. Malbec of course, and from Mendoza, but not one of the modern heavy bottled, newly named mega vineyards from the cloud-scratching altitude vineyards, with their eye watering price; no, a bog-standard malbec from one of the old school domaines, Cavas Weinert.

When I first visited Argentina in the late 90s, my office suggested to me a good wine shop and when I asked for their best bottle, that is what they gave me. I remember it well, US$11 as the peso was pegged to the dollar. How things have changed, both the economy and the pricing…

Anyway, 19 years later and I found the 1999 in duty free at a sensible price and of course grabbed it (alas only one, foolish… it has never re-appeared, nor anything of similar age and good value). It had old fashioned (lower) alcohol, ripe red and black fruit, some menthol/licorice and a touch of leather – still nice acidity, well alive and elegant.

It’s the oldest malbec I’ve drunk and by far the most interesting.

Hmm, age… and the patience to wait. It’s interesting looking at the wine tasting feed on Instagram as there are some old wine afficionadi who obviously have enormous ancient cellars and wallets and deign not to drink anything under 30 years old and when sipping something aged a mere twenty, opine that it will be better in 10, 20 years. Perhaps, but very few wines really age that well, and it becomes a matter of bottle by bottle condition, or, simply put, luck. If you are buying an old bottle commercially, it’s really potluck unless you know that it’s sat undisturbed in a cool dark cellar for decades. I have had a couple of late 90s barolos recently both of which were tired and ended up in the risotto, wines that should have been just about spot on. Dodgy storage?

(By the way, tired Barolo can get very meaty, which is a great base for risotto with some dried morels and if it’s Christmas, why not a truffle shaved atop? Simple but delicious indulgence).

Even when stored yourself, the lottery dice still rattle. When our generous friend Roger opened his Italian cellar and took out a couple of early 90s Gaja barbarescos, one bottle was younger, fresher and better than the other. Same source, same cellar for 25 years…

To prove the point, look at these two, seldom have I seen such a blatant divergence. Both were bought from the domain, came from the same wooden case and were stored next-door to each other underground. Cork difference? Both (half) bottles look perfect, but they will for sure taste very different.

With such bottle variation and the probabilities of expensive disappointment (and years of waiting for nothing), it’s tempting to play safe and drink earlier, which in the main is what we do, though by early I don’t mean before 15 years (for reds) or 10 for whites (let’s set aside the premature oxidation nightmare for once).

But as prices escalate to levels where so much of the world’s better rated historical vineyards and domaines are now affordable only to the extremely well off, that ‘when to drink’ question becomes critical. What I used to buy by the case of 12 became 6, then 3 and then one single bottle if I could get it and close my eyes to the cost. In which case you need to be pretty sure to open it when it’s going to return ample pleasure on your investment…

Christmas often sees the golden oldies dusted off from the cellar, and the year end is prime time for articles on the best wines of the year, which I find pretty tedious as it smacks either of rather voyeuristic ‘wine porn’ or people showing off about the latest 19th century Lafite they’ve slurped, or billionaire’s Burgundy. Very nice for you who drank it, but so what?

But as I wondered what we’d drunk over the year that set apart, there was a theme. We are lucky enough to drink lots of good wine, but to get back to that golden ball analogy, some are in a different league. And as I scratched my memory, none of them were young.

I’ve mentioned most of them before so will not bore you here, but a village Meursault 1990 from an unknown negociant, and a 2005 Roulot village Meursault were the two whites that stopped us in our tracks. Yes, we may have drunk more impressive wines much higher up the hierarchy, but none delivered this level of pleasure and elegant balance. They did not have the weight and power of a grander cru, but a seamlessly integrated complexity of flavour which was, literally, intoxicating. Wines that retained some of the exuberant fruit of youth, but with the added beauty of layers of age, nuttiness, an oily texture, and citrus length that turned almost sweet but maintained the juiciness that makes you want more. That perfect balance of fruit, acidity, minerality and burnished patina.

We opened a 2010 Domaine Leflaive Puligny 1e Clavoillon (a prime candidate for miserable oxidation) and it turned out to be yellow bright, powerful and a wine that made me wonder what this bottle would have been in 5 or 10 years to come. The 1992 was so memorable in 2010, as was a Pierre Morey village Meursault Tessons 1992 in 2018.

I know – but how many whites would last so long, even without premox? Certainly, after about 1995 you enter a minefield of unreliability.

Last week Roger again descended into his cellar and produced two 1990s, both French influenced super Tuscans from the Antinoris, six centuries of wine making patience. Tignanello I’ve had often enough before and is sangiovese-based with a slug of cabernet, and again the 30 years had given it a lovely soft glow, though I suspect it should be drunk fairly soon as the bones were beginning to show. The Solaia, a cabernet king I’ve never tasted before, had the seamless elegance of top Bordeaux, and I mean very top.

One thing about old red wines, those of say 25 years plus, is that the tasting descriptions become more difficult. I tend to laugh at much of the current social media tasting notes pretention as it sounds more like a list of food recipe ingredients, getting ridiculously specific (can you really taste the type of lemon in your chardonnay, the exact plethora of berries, the type of tea?!). But yes of course, it’s obviously Assam tea (not Darjeeling for goodness sake), meyer lemon (a favourite of pundits) and a mix of boysenberry, lingonberry, raspberry, strawberry, cloudberry and what else was I missing from my fruit salad? All in one simple grape. Wow.

No, in older wines the flavours melt into each other and soften, losing their individual signature to form a more complex picture, rather as a painter’s oils mix and become indistinguishable on the palette but form something more beautiful and moving. Nobody tries to describe and identify the individual brushstrokes or colours. The only common feature I can describe is that older reds become sweeter and often develop a silky soft texture that can easily mask origin – perfumed old Nebbiolo and Pinot can end up as sweet red fruit with a lovely creamy texture, remarkably similar.

Red Burgundy? Though ‘only’ a 1e cru, the most compelling wine was probably that 1998 Chevillon Nuits St Georges that I mentioned in a recent post. Perhaps age does confer wisdom after all. I hope so!

Some initially tough, tannic vintages may demand a lot of cellar slumber, like the 1986 Bordeaux’s that our Norwegian friend Andre so generously served us at his 60th. At his 50th one was corked and one was as giving as a block of cement, but a decade later and they were amongst the finest Bordeaux I’ve been lucky enough to taste. But again, we got them both on a good day.

As a kid I remember the summer of 1976, the first major heatwave (& still I think the record). I was a schoolkid, and the cricket pitch was a dusty expanse of dessicated browness. The vines shut down, sunburn, hydric stress, thick skins and biting tannins. Not good. But a decade ago I came across some ‘76 grand cru Burgundy and Bordeaux, now in their mid 30s, and guess what, the ugly duckling had blossomed into something truly lovely, a sort of magical transformation.

And to finish off, our friend Peter appeared this week clutching several bottles. One was a 2019 Cote Rotie from Cuilleron, Bonnivieres, a lieux-dit (named vineyard) sitting in the Cote Brune, the more ‘masculine’ iron rich part of the Cote, just above the renowned La Turque, Guigal’s most flamboyant wine (at 3 times the price and probably 3 times the oak). Ridiculously young, but disarmingly drinkable. A conundrum – drinking such a baby seems a waste, but it’s already delicious now. Will it shut down and emerge as something greater in 15 years plus?

Ah, but the other bottle was curiously heavy for an unfashionable Pomerol picked years before the present vogue for thick-walled glass. It was travelled and shaken up poor thing, and with a cork that simply crumbled. Peter extricated the crumbs of cork and decided not to decant. Instead, we just poured a glass, let it catch some air and watched.

The colour was still bright and red-centred, a good sign, though of course the rim was bricking and pale. Not bad for a 1959. Yes, 63 years old, a wine older than me, these days a very, very rare commodity (other than perhaps madeira which ages decades, even centuries).

De Sales. Funnily enough it’s one of the few Pomerols I used to buy as it was one that I could actually afford, perhaps due to its being the largest property in the commune, (with an impressive chateau and in the same family for 400 years). It’s located in the northwest corner on sandy-gravel. Reading David Peppercorn, he says they improved after 1970 and should be drunk young. Hmm…

As said, the colour was lovely, the texture that soft silky caresse, the fruit ripe, sweet and blended together, a touch of cedar and chocolate, but not the usual dark chocolate, this had more milky flavour. The smell was difficult to describe but captivating, old fruit, old roses, old tea? With time the finish got more mushroomy as the wine began to fade – reminded me of a 1960 Margaux opened aged 50 which I did decant, and which filled the kitchen with floral red fruited perfume before also slipping into mushroomy age after half an hour or so. Last year Peter brought another Pomerol, a 1978 Gazin, same effect.

A truly memorable treat, thankyou.

Sometimes, patience and really old wines can achieve a different level, almost emotional, a gustatory flashback to your childhood or, even more moving, a slice of history from before you were even born. The wine becomes a sort of essence of wine, a fleeting but beautiful fragrance, a soft, velvety texture, a glimpse of a blend of subtle flavours, a sweetness, something beyond just fermented grapes and simple taste.

Which leaves me to wish you a very happy Christmas and lots of uncorked, unpremoxed, beautifully preserved old wines in 2023…

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