Here we track down and taste a 1953 Leoville Barton St. Julien, a 1959 Huet Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec Vouvray and a 1971 Schloss Reinhartshausen Hattenheimer Rheingau Spatlese.“We will sell no wine before its time.”
The allure of fine old wines has been around long before Orsen Wells uttered those immortal words for Paul Masson. Homer and Pliny both praised fine old wines aged in amphorea - large ancient terra cotta vessels, the original jug wines - and the idea that old is better has pretty much stuck. Which is probably why people usually drink wines that are older than they should be. Most wines simply aren't made to age. Still, there are quite a few great wines made for the long haul and I always get excited about the prospect of trying old wines.
People often ask “what was your favorite or most memorable wine?” Having either a bad memory or a complete lack of imagination, I always mention the oldest wines I've ever tasted: an 1860 Cossart Gordon Sercial Madeira and a 1934 Château Margaux. Both were not the most delicious wines I've ever tried but certainly the most memorable. There's something strange and wonderful about tasting a wine older than yourself. For me it seems an amazing way to experience a bit of history -- a bit like communing with the ancient wine gods -- but for different people it means different things. The godfather of California winemakers, the late André Tchelistcheff once said that “tasting old wine is like making love to a very old lady. It is possible. It can even be enjoyable. But it requires a little bit of imagination.” I like a sexual metaphor as much as the next guy but that's definitely not my bag, baby!
1. Finding Fine Old WinesBack to the wine. If you're like me you probably don't have a cellar full of ancient wines so you'll have to find them somewhere. It takes quite a bit of research which can also be part of the fun. The best resource I've found for quickly identifying old wines that have a chance of still being drinkable is Michael Broadbent's awesome book Vintage Wine. He's probably tasted more old wines than anyone else. For instance the '34 Margaux which was a big deal for me he's tried 15 times. Armed with this book and wine-searcher.com -- which helpfully lists current auctions as well as retail stock lists – you can get a good idea of the risk/reward ratio for wines currently available. After a bit of research, I found a 1959 Huet Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec Vouvray for $96, a 1953 Leoville Barton for $137 and a 1971 Schloss Reinhartshausen Hattenheimer Rheingau Spatlese (try saying that 5 times fast!) for $65. They're not inexpensive but seem fairly cheap compared to 2005 Bordeaux futures like Chateau Cheval Blanc for $850 a bottle! I also double checked the viability of these selections obsessively on eRobertParker.com, Neil Martin's Wine Journal, The Bailey brother's Fine Wine Diary and good ol' google. The next thing to do is to assess the bottle's condition and especially its ullage. Its whatage?
2. Ullage and other important thingsUllage is the kind of word that will make you sound smart. It's used in rocket science to describe the empty space above the fuel. Of course the term originated in wine making to describe the space between the cork and wine making it even smarter. Winebid.com has an excellent description of ullage in relation to what should be expected at the different ages of a wine. Other things to consider are the capsule (foil), cork and label condition all covered in great detail at Brentwood Wine. A torn label which obviously doesn't affect the wine usually means a lower price for those actually interested in drinking as opposed to collecting.
Any good wine merchant dealing in fine old wines will provide you with a decent assessment of the bottle condition including a photograph of the bottle. They'll also only ship when the weather is mild so don't expect a delivery in the heat of summer or the dead of winter.
OK, the wines have arrived and we're ready to taste!:
3. Tasting in Mini Verticals
A vertical tasting is different vintages of the same wine (ie Ridge Monte Bellos from 1971 to 2000http://www.wine-journal.com/ridge_montebello_vertical.html), while a horizontal tasting is all from the same vintage but different wines (ie a bunch of different 2002's). A mini-vertical is simply having a younger bottle of the same wine on hand both as a back-up if the old one is bad and as a reference point if it isn't. This is especially handy if you're opening an old bottle for a special occasion. We tasted all three old bottles in mini-verticals:
1953 Leoville Barton St. Julien / 1997 Leoville Barton St. Julien1953 was one of the greatest Bordeaux vintages of the 20th Century. Broadbent's last tasting note on the '53 Leoville Barton was in 1988 where he gave it 4 out of 5 stars but warned “drink up”. Robert Parker gave this wine 95 points as one of the classic Leoville Bartons but his last tasting of it was in 1994. This bottle was a big risk even though the bottle was at mid-shoulder fill, making it typical for its age. The saturated cork came out fine and I started to decant. Damn! A murky brown soup with very little aromatics, it was completely dead. Everyone took a sad sip out of curiosity. Just a faint woody oxidized flavor where a wine once stood. RIP 1953. Luckily the '97 was quite a treat and a testament to the value of “off vintages”. 1997 was a good year in St. Julien but not amazing. It was drinking very well, perfectly mellowed and ripe tannins, a big pile of pencil shavings and some nice black currant fruit peeking through. $50 for a perfectly aged bottle is not bad considering that the 2005 will set you back $120 and won't be drinkable for another decade or so.
1959 Huet Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec Vouvray / 2002 Huet Clos de Bourg Demi-Sec VouvrayThe inspiration for tasting an old Huet came from Chris Coad's Huet-a-Thon which I read about a few years back. I even emailed Chris a photo of the bottle before I purchased it. I had some reservations about possible seepage from the cork but he thought it was a good risk for $96 since Chenin Blanc is fairly bullet-proof. Unfortunately this one had taken some heavy strafing and was somewhat subdued. It was simply as if its flavor volume had been turned down to 5. As we all expected this clear deep gold liquid to be turned up to 11 it was a bit of a letdown. Perhaps it was slightly corked even though there was none of the telltale musty smells. Still, there was enough to go on to get a decent idea of how good it could have been: a very complex slightly oxidized arrangement of dill, spearmint, honeycomb, pineapple, over-ripe pear, orange rind, lemon and cheesy notes. It was tired but still interesting. I couldn't get a more recent Le Haut-Lieu Demi Sec so it wasn't exactly a vertical. Anyway the 2002 was probably too young anyway. It was powerfully aromatic and concentrated with honeyed peach, pineapple, coconut, almond and lemon oil with a bit of ripe apple on the palate. Great lively acidity and very long cheesy pineapple finish. Excellent and going to get better in a few more years. Once again, the younger wine saved the day but at least we got to experience the additional layers of flavor complexity that age brings to the great Vouvrays of Huet.
1971 Schloss Reinhartshausen Hattenheimer Spatlese /2002 Schloss Reinhartshausen Hattenheimer SpatleseLike most people I can't resist and drink fine Reislings way too early. It's so common that there's even a name for this crime: Vinfanticide. The great German wine importer Terry Theise gives these aging recommendations: “KABINETT: peaks from 4-6 years and shouldn’t fade till about age 15. Again, it’s not an abrupt demise, but rather a deliberate twilight slide. That said, I have in mind that 1961 Kabinett I drank at Schmitt-Wagner; 42 years old and going strong. SPÄTLESE: peaks from 7-10 years and shouldn’t fade till about age 25. AUSLESE: peaks from 12-15 years and shouldn’t fade till about age 35. BEERENAUSLESE: peaks from 25 years or so, and shouldn’t fade till about age 50. TBA: I know you’ll hate to hear this, but these wines aren’t designed to fit into a human lifetime. Unless you started buying TBA when you were, like, seventeen, every bottle you have will outlive you.” Once again, we're pushing the limits of age but this time we come up with a winner. The 1971 is a pure medium deep amber with a fairly powerful concentration of smoky glazed fruits, dried apricots, tropical fruits and coconut almost like a Tokaji Aszú. Beautifully layered with a long finish. The contrast to the 2002 was equally amazing. How could this pale greenish yellow weakish but classic Riesling be the same wine? It has a lot of growing up to do!
This was the most fun and interesting tasting I've had in a long time even if two of the wines didn't quite make it. Let's face it: I was probably way too optimistic that the '53 Leoville Barton was going to be drinkable. The '59 Huet was just bad luck but the '71 Schloss Reinhartshausen – a not nearly as well known wine as the others – was the sleeper favorite.
If you plan to track down and taste an old wine or two yourself, I've summarized a few helpful resources below. Alternatively, if you have $400 dollars or so burning a hole in your pocket you could go straight to the newly designed Chambers Street Wines site and pick up one of two mini verticals ready to go: a Blandy's 1863 Madeira Malmsey for $374.99 paired with a 5 year old Blandy's Madeira Malmsey for $22.99 or a Rinaldi, Francesco 1971 Barolo Cannubi, sel Cavaliere del Tar for $199.99 paired with its younger sibling, the 1982 Cannubi for $159.99. They actually have quite a few other possibilities for quite a bit less cash that are worth checking out as well. One of the owners, über gentleman Jamie Wolff, worked with Michael Broadbent and is no stranger to fine old wines.
Resources:Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine If you have any interest in fine old wines this book is both indespensible and fascinating.
Wine-Searcher.com The best resource on the internet to find old wines, including both auctions and retail stock lists
Brentwood Wines All about the condition of old bottles and a reputable merchant.
Ullage WineBid.com's guide to ullage.
Neil Martin's Wine Journal
The Bailey brother's Fine Wine DiaryWine Shipping Laws Make sure you can have wines shipped to your home before you buy.