Talking Wine – September 2022

I’ve just been reading about a Master of Wine who has tasted through some very old vintages (1920’s) of first growth claret. They had a mixed reception apparently but the 1850’s Port was very much alive and kicking. Do you have old wine in stock that you’ve been admiring but not drinking?

One of the great myths is that wine improves with age. The majority of the world’s wines should probably be drunk within a year or two – everyday whites in particular need to be fresh and clean while others may benefit from a few years in bottle. Reds usually have a longer life but again two or three years’ age is enough for everyday wines. They can fade very quickly. It is a complicated business that requires a comprehensive understanding of grape varieties, winemaking techniques, and the country of origin.

For a wine to get better and continue to improve it was likely to be expensive in the first place and designed to mature over 15-20 years or even longer. So don’t put aside that £8.99 bottle you bought in the supermarket! It will only get worse by the day. Better wines don’t necessarily improve but change in style. So if you have a case of decent mid range claret (Bordeaux) then try a bottle every year or so and make a judgement on whether or not it will taste better next year. You have to examine the fruit flavours and how they balance with the tannins. If still considered “closed” then leave a little longer but if ripe and soft then pull the cork and enjoy before it gets tired and the fruit flavours disappear.

One of the interesting aspects to my job over the years has been to look at and comment on other cellars. It may be that following a death in the family old wine is found and needs valuing or it may be just someone who has been given bottles over the years but been afraid to drink them – always waiting for that elusive “special occasion”.

When looking at older wines with a view to resell, one does need to understand more of the provenance. Has the wine been temperature controlled in a bonded warehouse, has it been in a home cellar, or has it instead been kept under the stairs in a warm house which will only accelerate the ageing process. Has it been lying on its side which will help cork shrinkage or standing up which might mean the cork drying out and air getting into the possible. Anything other than the former and the wine has little resale value and anyway it is much more fun trying it out and perhaps being in for a pleasant surprise.

There are a few amusing tales to tell. A good friend was walking up the road early on a summer’s evening clutching a bottle of red. I enquired where he was heading as I recognised the label on the bottle. His response was that he was visiting an elderly neighbour and though he ought to bring a bottle and that was all he had left. When I pointed out that it was a bottle of 2005 Chateau Palmer valued at over £200 a bottle, he had a dicky fit, so I replaced it with an inexpensive southern French Carignan! He never paid me back and I never shared that bottle – shame on him.

Another good story is the time I went down to Sevenoaks school to visit a housemaster (later a distinguished head!) just after the end of term. We had a cracking Saturday night and so on the Sunday over a simple BBQ he went to his cellar announcing that there was no point drinking anything much good as we all had mild hangovers and had to drive later.

Before I knew it, he had removed the corks of two bottles of Tignanello on the grounds it was labelled a Vino da tavola (table wine) and he assumed it was a cheap Italian he had been given by a grateful parent. When I pointed out his error and that this “super Tuscan” was well into three figures his hangover vanished and at my suggestion he fetched the Riedel glasses – what a BBQ that was!

The point is that many people really don’t know what they have got or been given which is why I love to take up the challenge ” would you mind looking at my cellar ?”