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A peculiar taste for history

Gregory W. Sherwood
August 2002

The complex aromas of an ancient Roman wine vat, the toffee-rich palate of a 200-year-old Rhone Muscat, or the tea and dried herb bouquet of an 1860s Chateau Lafite Bordeaux. Yes, it seems almost every time you open up a wine magazine or read a newspaper wine column, you’re sure to find an article in the form of a bracing historical reminisance that’s naturally followed by an exotic tasting note on that “once in a lifetime” and “never to be repeated” wine tasting opportunity.

Of course, these opportunities are normally reserved for the Jancis Robinsons and Michael Broadbents of our world, not the man in the street. After all, it does take a person with an experienced palate and suitably, broadly orientated wine knowledge to taste, and most importantly, appreciate these old gems. Were they to be given to your average middle-aged housewife, they would be sure to end up down the sink, ancient or not!

I can only suppose that this never ending fascination with tasting old dusty bottles from some Lord or Lady’s cellar in Scotland somewhere, or at least reading about somebody else doing so, is comparable in many ways to those of us who indulge in armchair exploration by way of reading eccentric travel books on the jungles of the Amazon or the savannahs of Botswana. Pure escapism!

And one of the most recent of these specialist “once in a lifetime” tastings to take place must have been the 2001 opening of a bottle of Constantia dessert wine dating from 1791, as described by Simon Woods in his Financial Times column. With a carefully selected audience present, Klein Constantia owner Duggie Jooste opened this special bottle as a celebratory 75th birthday drink! And from all reports, the liqueur was thick and unctuous, but still noticeably wine.

The wine in question is of course now called Vin de Constance, and a more recent vintage was the only bottle I bothered to lug back to London after visiting several Cape wine estates in February 2002. A remarkable bottle of wine no doubt with enough history to match, and even surpass the likes of Chateau Lafite or Chateau Latour, the Bordeaux greats. Whether I will keep my bottle until my 75th birthday, I cannot say. More than likely not, sadly.

Now, while I can’t claim to have quaffed 100-year-old claret or 200 year old dessert wines, I have had an opportunity to go back into the past and taste a snapshot of history on more than one occasion. Of these, the most memorable bottle must undoubtedly have been a 1930 KWV Muscadel sweet fortified wine from Wine Of Origin Boberg, that had been specially labelled and packaged up for the Millennium. In an international context this might not sound that old, but believe me, trying to get your hands on something drinkable that’s more than 30 years old in South Africa can be quite a tall order.

Not to spoil the grand occasion, I opened the bottle at the end of a superb wine tasting dinner and served the eight highly accomplished guests each a glass blind. All the tasters had their wine Diploma and some were even busy with their Cape Wine Master studies, so they were a knowledgeable group. Well, I have to tell you that most of them thought the wine was a tawny port or a Muscadel. But what about the age? The oldest vintage that was suggested was 1988! I can still remember trying to keep a straight face amidst all the deception. Needless to say, when I revealed the bottle and the vintage, a few gasps were heard around the room! To call it a youthful tasting wine would have been a slight understatement.

So, I guess the moral of my story was that if this wine were to actually be kept for 100 or 150 years, I’m convinced it would still be eminently drinkable, perhaps even by your average middle-aged housewife! Not quite a Michael Broadbent experience I know, but meaningful and pleasurable enough to me.

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