Wines, like people, come and go. Some become our best friends, some remain etched in our memories, and some get pushed to the bottom of the memories pile and resurface many years later; not unlike that friend you had when you were five who suddenly appears in your dreams for no reason. Others, quite simply, are forgotten forever and dissolve into nothingness.
There are bottles we buy with eager anticipation to open the same day. There are bottles we buy with the purpose of ageing, but open far too young because of impatience.
There are bottles that are opened at “perfect” maturity.
Then there are bottles that lie patiently waiting; ones that lie with ears pricked when their owner walks into the cellar.
“Hello! I’ve reached my peak drinking window according to the critics, it’s time to open me!!!” they shout, their voices muffled by their corks, but their owner leaves them snoozing on, so that eventually their journalistic drinking bracket has long expired and they fall into a deep slumber, having given up hope and wondering whether they shall ever see take a deep breath of oxygen into their liquid lungs again.
I recently attended a tasting where twenty-one of these wines were, as if by miracle, gently poked awake from their deep slumber. I’m not sure who was more surprised – me or the wines.
Dégustation Vieux Bordeaux took place on the 17th January. I will start by saying I cannot do these wines justice.
We must remain humble in the face of wine, and in the face of experience. Older wines, like our elders, have far, far many morestories than us to tell. It is up to us to listen to them. Without them, we know something; but that something is gravely stunted.
I cannot tell you about the vintages, and I cannot tell you how the châteaux were run at the time. Nor will I try.
I can, however, do my best to put into words how they tasted, and tell you how they made me feel.
I often speak about alive wine, and I like to think that alive wines sometimes choose to tell us their secrets. Most of these wines were alive, and many of these wines shared their secrets with me. Wouldn’t you want to share your secrets, if you had been told to sleep for between 138 and 95 years? These wines lived in another era; and they want to tell us about it.
1881 Château Léoville Poyferré (Averys bottling)
Alive and kicking; this was one of my favourites that I nuzzled in my glass for a very long time. Somehow still with a flickering and bright ruby core, it was clean and ever so pure on the palate; not unlike tasting the vinous equivalent of a fresh red wine-meets-water spring. There was black raspberry skin and packed black earth with dried tobacco leaves. Cherry stones lingered on the palate with a crunchy texture and oh – that acid. In old wines, acid seems to take on a personality of its own. There was an apple-like acidity of vibrancy. Once the acid settled, the wine showed its other feathers; tree bark and a sap-like delicacy with pine cones and apple pips. Fresh mint leaf made a gentle appearance on the finish. a fresh savoury wonder; so light on its feet; a vinous enchanted forest. After all; Hans Christian Anderson died only six years before its birth.
1907 Château Haut Bailly
Slumbering a little still; ashy, dense, dark and brooding. Cedar and ash, wood smoke and undergrowth. Less overt fruit here than with the 1881 but still showing remnants of its blackcurrant and bramble nature. Sooty woodiness but somehow finishing so bright. Slumbering but alive.
1911 Château Brane Cantenac
I have never, and I don’t think I will ever, taste anything like this again. Either the wine did die and it came back as a ghost, or it decided, “to hell with this waiting game!” and flamboyantly took on wine profiles that none of us had seen before. Regardless, its aromas were definitely kicking. Sour yoghurt – frozen yoghurt style, cocoa powder, chocolate chips. Mushroom dust. Blue cheese; even epoisses as one taster added.
1914 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
Oh, what a wine of powerful energy. A muscular, almost jagged, nose and structure; a beautifully confident structure. A thorny, mossy character on the palate, with truffles and dried porcini mushrooms chiming in. Savoury fruits of the forest suddenly awakened after a minute or so; as if to yell quietly - … we’re still here. It finished with black smoke; as if to say, now you see me, now you don’t.
1916 Château Smith Haut Lafitte
Only just alive; somewhat on its death bed. Soy sauce and dried hay and barnyard pull through, with a tangy, umami character, joined by a last leap of faith via dried flowers of a heathen nature. A gentle side of coal joins the finish which made me think the deathbed might be near.
1916 Château Gruaud Larose
Hello, you – very much alive and proud to be so. This wine has its morning suit on with a cigar in hand. Dense, smoky and savoury; nutmeg and cinnamon spice peeking their heads out here. Wild thyme and dried branches make an appearance, with a certain olive skin character that’s very appealing and lifts the palate of the wine. Lavender joins on the finish and the tannin structure falls onto the palate like gentle snowflakes. What a wine.
1916 Château Durfort Vivens
Bright and tangy with primary fruit still a gung-ho somehow. Some electric brightness here despite the lighter body; bramble skin and bramble leaf with direct vertical zippiness. Perhaps less characterful, but still lovely.
1918 Château Haut Bailly
Savoury and earthy on the nose; hot earth on a summer’s rainy day. Dust and white smoke; ashy, with less fruit, but the subtle blackcurrant pith that remains pokes its head through.
1918 Château Marquis de Terme
A bit volatile here. Not sure what happened here but I think we lost one to another world. Man down, RIP.
1918 Château Léoville-Las Cases
I cannot even describe what this wine gave to us. Giggles and eyes of astonishment appeared. Some looked puzzled, others looked enamoured. We all tried to reason with its aromas. This, amongst all of the wines, was the one with most personality. It certainly showed us its one-of-a-kind peacock feathers. I’m not even sure we can say peacock; this is a breed of its own – some sort of mythical bird. Pure blackcurrant juice met frozen bramble sorbet, which met some kind of black cherry liqueur which met blood orange confit. There was an outstanding amount of fruit here, and almost no tertiary character. Wine can defy all laws sometimes, and this wine was testament to that.
1919 Château La Lagune
Somewhat under the radar, this little one left me spellbound. Cigars and cedar on the nose suddenly lifted out of nowhere to bring blackberry pips and black cherry stones, with a confident side of spice; almost fiery and chilli like, with black and white pepper sprinklings. One of those rare wines to carry a rumbling energy from within.
1920 Le Tour de Tertre (?) - labelling confusion, unsure of this wine’s existence – is it a ghost?
The first of the wines to be led by graphite; a quality I greatly desire in Bordeaux. A hot summer night of tarmac and dust joins the nose, but not much fruit is here.
1920 Château Brane Cantenac
Goodness; just beautiful. Ethereal, pretty, elegant and dancing; in its ballet shoes. Truffles and fresh vanilla pods meet on the palate with fresh bramble fruit. Simply the definition of ethereal.
1922 Château Lanessan
Woody and minera, dustry tannic structure. Wild bark character, like sucking on wood. It may sound crazy but this tasted like a vine with an added side of tomato leaf.
1924 Château Pavie
1st corked, sob.
2nd - Graphite, black lead, woody and forest like. Bloody and metallic.
1924 Clos Fourtet
Plush, rich, savoury fruit, very powerful, weighty on palate, bur bright acid lift. Umami, sweet soy sauce. Bloody and meaty.
An enormous thank you goes to the wonderful, entirely inimitable, Roy Richards. Roy - thank you for this incredible generosity. I know you’ll probably shake your head and tell me to oh shush, but truly - the world of wine would be a much dimmer state without you. You were one of the key contributors to its shining state today.
If you’d like to read more about what he achieved and why we owe him one, Jancis wrote a brilliant piece here.