Not all wine improves with age, sometimes old is just old

I have an imaginary room beneath my house that’s full of rotting fermented grape juice. That this room is, in reality, a darkened corner of a huge bonded storage facility 100 miles west of London is neither here nor there because, as many space-restricted city dwellers know, owning a wine cellar is a state of mind.

This state of mind is mostly brimming with happiness, cosseted by the knowledge that regular deposits have been paid into the Bank of Future Vinous Joys. But at other times, it’s clouded by mild bewilderment. Because, until the corks are pulled from all those bottles of Meursault, St Joseph and Brunello di Montalcino slumbering in the faraway gloom, there’s absolutely no way of knowing if what’s inside them is wonderfully mature or has long since departed. That’s the risk you take when you have what our Gallic chums amusedly call “le gout anglais”the English taste for old wine.

The term le goût anglais was originally coined to describe England’s historical preference for rich, long-matured styles of champagne, but our fascination with age extends across the vinous spectrum. American winemaking innovator André Tchelistcheff crudely compared appreciating old wine to relationships with a very old lover (“It can be enjoyable. But it requires a bit of imagination”), yet nothing extra is needed to appreciate a time-defying classic such as 1961 Château Latour, a claret so full of vim that it’ll surely still be pulling up trees in another 61 years’ time.

However, a little imagination is required for 1887 Pol Roger, the most senior champagne I’ve drunk, rescued from a collapsed cellar at the Grand Marque’s Epernay headquarters. While the first bottle was, sadly, dead on arrival, a second’s oily texture and faint umami flavors were enriched by knowledge of the 125 years of history that had unfolded around it as it lay undisturbed in northern France.

A TTC Lomelino Verdelho from 1862 long held the record as the oldest wine I’d tasted. This near-indestructible Madeira, a wine produced by alternate cooling and heating, making it among the longest lived of any style, was created from grapes harvested at the time of the American civil war.

But even its 160-year lifespan seems fleeting when compared with the 1728 Vino Pancho Romano I discovered at Bodegas González Byass in Jerez de Frontera recently. An inky black nectar that has swallowed an unbelievable 294 years and shows no signs of waning, it was a memorably gastronomic experience, rather than merely — as extremely old wines often can be — an intellectual one. Ingesting anything made from fruit ripened by sunbeams that shone on your great great great great great great great great grandparents is astonishing enough, but this was more vital than many wines a fraction of its age.

“In order to be a great old wine a wine needs to have been a great young one first,” González Byass cellar master Antonio Flores told me as I dipped a venencia — a pipe-shaped instrument for extracting wine — into the barrel of 1728 Vino Pancho Romano. “Old is only old. How many people do you know who were never happy as a young person and never changed?”

This wine, and whoever made it, must have been as zen as Buddhist masters because the treacly prize that emerged was among the most harmonious things to have ever passed my lips. González Byass bought the single bota of 1728 from an almacenista in 1841 but never clarified if it was made from stalwart sweet sherry grape Pedro Ximénez or a blend. With 600g of sugar per liter and high acidity, it oscillated back and forth between butterscotch, caramel, salt and citrus like a seismometer gone haywire, before settling on an almost ineffable sensation that I can only describe as celestial walnuts.

Obviously, 294 years is far beyond the limits of most wines’ lifespans, with the majority designed to be drunk within a couple of years of harvest. But those that have outstanding “structure” — supernatural levels of sugar and acidity in the case of 1728 Vino Pancho Romano, or a balance of acidity, tannins and other preservative polythenols with the 1961 Château Latour — allied to dry extract (the material that makes up the body of the wine) far surpass the norm.

As time goes by, a wine’s edges soften, its fragrance evolves and fruit is subsumed by tertiary aromas such as leather, truffle, blood and nuts, which can be discombobulating for unaccustomed beginners. Many great wines are a harmonious cohesion of opposing elements that enable them to evolve gracefully against the rub of time, much as a diving bell’s spherical shape allows it to withstand huge pressures in the depths of the ocean.

But, as Flores says, old wine is only old wine, and much of it fails to fulfill its potential — which is one of the pitfalls of the English trade’s obsession with defining “great” vintages as those deemed able to last the longest.

For example, 2005 red burgundy is the most acclaimed vintage since the turn of the millennium, with the best wines loaded with enough tannin and material feasibly to propel them, Tardis-like, far into the future. Yet, 17 years on, many remain closed and inexpressive, with no guarantee if or when they will gloriously awaken, while other less well regarded years have consistently provided pleasure from the outset.

At the top end, the still tightly wound 2005 Romanée-Conti is the most monumental union of power and weightlessness I’ve ever tasted, yet the younger 2007, a so-called off vintage, is currently knocking it out of the park. Densely packed yet light as air, it levitates above the glass with a smoky, dried-flower sensuality, already at its apogee. Will it attain legendary status in 50 years like the 2005? I doubt it but perhaps, like the proverbial bird in the hand, a mind-boggling mature burgundy in the glass today is worth two “gonna-be-greats” in the cellar.

I love “off” vintages like 2007 for joyful early drinking without the anxiety-ridden guesswork of long cellaring. Indeed, my own goût anglais is tempered by my enthusiasm for opening fresh releases, what the French call “drinking on the fruit”, and I often find myself switching between very old and very young wines as occasion and mood dictate.

Two standouts that bookended a recent vertical tasting of Domaine Dujac’s sainted Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru “Aux Combottes” at Noble Rot Soho were a multidimensional 1978, a legendary vintage renowned for being charming from the outset, and a beautifully perfumed 2017.

Indeed, 2017 red burgundies remind me of 2007s in that, while they never generated the market excitement of siblings from 2005 and 2015/2016, drinkers don’t need to wait years to start reaping their pleasures. Bright, vivacious, friendly wines that compensate for a lack of aged complexities with the exuberance of youth, 2017s give me plenty to revel in while I agonize over how the more celebrated vintages in my imaginary room are evolving. When it comes to the finest bottles, age isn’t everything.

Youth versus maturity

The pick of young vintages and treasures from the past century

Red Burgundies for enjoying ‘on the fruit’

  • 2017 Domaine des Croix ‘Les Greves’ Beaune 1er Cru

  • 2017 Hudelot-Noellat ‘Les Petits Vougeot’ 1er Cru

  • 2017 Domaine David Duband Nuits St Georges ‘Les Pruliers’ 1er Cru

  • 2018 Cecile Tremblay Burgundy Rouge

  • 2018 Domaine Sylvain Pataille Bourgogne ‘Le Chapitre’

  • 2020 Charles Lachaux Aloxe-Corton 1er Cru ‘Les Valozières’

Time-defying beauties from the cellar

  • 1983 Domaine Ponsot Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru ‘Monts-Luisants’

  • 1978 Simon Bize Savigny-lès-Beaune 1er Cru ‘Aux Vergelesses’

  • 1971 Salon Champagne

  • 1961 Laville Haut-Brion Blanc

  • 1958 Gaja Barbaresco

  • 1934 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia

  • 1920 Blandy’s Bual Madeira

  • Equipo Navazos La Bota de Oloroso 94

  • Barbadillo Amontillado ‘S.Roberto’

Dan Keeling is the editor of Noble Rot magazine (@noblerotmag) and co-founder of Noble Rot restaurants.

Jancis Robinson is away. More columns at ft.com/jancis-robinson

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