Do you like old wine?

‘Do you like old wine?’

It’s a question I was asked before a guest popped a pristine bottle of 1934 Latour out of his bag.

I thought about it again on Friday night, after opening a bottle of 1973 Vina Tondonia Reserva.

Old wine is different. It requires a different mindset when you come to assess it. But old wine is part of the point of fine wine, isn’t it? For many, the ability to develop with age is one of the criteria for deciding whether a wine is fine or not.

The liking of old wine is quite personal. Some people just don’t get on with old wine, and would like to have all their wines young, while they are in their phase of primary fruit.

Then there is the decision point: is this wine dead? Old wines reach a destination point where they begin to taste alike; irrespective of their origin, they taste just of old wine.

I really love drinking a great old wine; one that’s showing elegance and complexity. I don’t like drinking dead wines that have lost their sense of place. What’s the point of terroir if it is lost?

But, then again, with old wine, it is not just about what is in the bottle. There’s also the trill of drinking something rooted at a point in history. A wine that comes from a special year, or predates the drinker. Sometimes you have to make an allowance for the wine, and use your imagination to complete what may be missing, or have faded with time.

There’s a need for honesty, too. I only have a sense of regret when I drink a wine that I know would have been better a few years ago. I remember once seeing a letter from a leading UK merchant telling its customers that too many of them had wines in their reserves that were being kept too long. Good one them. Better to drink a wine too young than too late.

I feel privileged whenever I have a chance to taste a great old wine. There’s something unique about drinking a well cellared bottle of a wine that repays keeping. I would just love to have an underground cellar, because for old wine storage is everything.

This brings me round to the subject of bottle variation. Alas, with really old wines, no two bottles are the same. The vagaries of corks and storage conditions mean that too many old wines are damaged. But you only need one positive experience to prove that a particular wine still has potential and merit.

Back to the question. Despite the inevitable disappointments, yes, I do like old wine.

16 comments to Do you like old wine?

  • Now I am curious; how was the ’34 Latour? I once poured a 1934 Beychevelle and the people guessed it was 30 years younger. Terroir? Yes! To everyone’s liking? No.

    Old wines, especially Madeira and Port wine, are one of the greatest wine experiences in my world. And it is not often I bump in to a bottle of these that is too old. Not as risky as table wines.

    All the best,

    Niklas

  • Was the Tondonia red or white, Jamie?

    I think they are both superb, BTW, but very different animals…

    Cheers

  • Henry Goulding

    I think it is only with age that a wine’s identity is truly revealed, when the initial hit of primary fruit steps aside to reveal the truths of the terroir, the vintage (good or bad), the skills of the grower (likewise).

    And I like the idea, that I read recently in Decanter, of thirds: that the enjoyment derived from a bottle is one third the wine, one third the history, one third the company. Old wine can do nothing for the company third but can certainly boost the history third and also the wine third.

    I am a huge fan of, if not old old, at least mature wine. The bold statement is replaced by the still small voice of calm.

  • ”I don’t like drinking dead wines that have lost their sense of place. What’s the point of terroir if it is lost?”

    Are wines that have lost their sense of place by definition ”dead”?
    The point of terroir in some cases is the ability to let the wine age. It’s like the grape variety, with age you lose the varietal expression and gain something else.

    And yes. I like old wines. :)

  • Damien

    An interesting topic, and both the wines you mention happen to come from regions that are “supposed” to age well. “Old wine” seems to be a bit of an anomaly from “New World” regions, and some “Old World” ones as well. There’s some sort of conditioning going on when Bordeaux, Rioja, red Burgundy, Rhone, etc. are all presumed to age well, yet we hear little of “old” Australia, South Africa, Italy (outside of Piedmont perhaps)… “old” guard versus “new” in wine journalism perhaps?

  • Kwispedoor

    If I’m not mistaken, wine was made in South Africa before Bordeaux was planted to the vine. I guess that makes us a little more “Old World” in wine making terms than some people think. I concede that there was a bit of a – let’s call it a “grey gap” – in our wine making history some time ago and that the best wines from France, Germany, Spain, etc. generally mature better than our best wines. However, some of our older wines might well surprise many people. I sucked on a KWV Reserve Port 1929 recently and, fortified though it may be, it seemed decades younger than it was. I’ve also tasted Rustenberg Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 and Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 1969 recently on blind tastings at my wine club and they were both fine – especially the Alto, which again seemed younger than it was. There’s much more: http://www.grape.co.za/users/tim_james/blog/2011-06-06-old_glory.html
    And yes, of course I like old wine!

  • Damien

    “The Latin poet Ausonius (AD 310-393/4) is not only the first author to mention that wine was grown in his native Bordeaux, he was also the region’s first known wine-grower.” (Oxf Comp. to Wine). I’d guess you are mistaken then Kwispedoor; nice try though! ;-)

  • Kwispedoor

    Yeah, Damien – I’m inclined to believe your source. I only remember reading it long ago somewhere, which is why I said that I might be mistaken. I just had a quick look and all I could find was “Consider that South Africa’s Constantia was around long before Bordeaux had produced much more than shad on a spit,..” here: http://cigarbrief.com/featured/wine-old-world-new-world/7172/ (from a writer that apparently doesn’t know the difference between a “palate” and a “palette”).
    Either way, my real point was that we have some wines in South Africa that age remarkably well and – as we’ve been making wine since 1659 (that one’s accurate!) – there’s grounds to argue that we might be considered somewhere between “old World” and “New World” as far as wine producing countries go.

  • glenn

    Hi Kwispedoor

    I’d be interested to hear which SA wine are good age worthy wines in your experience. I’m busy putting a collection of wines together for future birthday celebrations and would appreciate any recommendations you may have. The obvious wines I can think of are the meerlusts, the kanonkops, the rustenburg, the beyerskloof, de toren and some others. But would appreciate your thoughts. I enjoy the thought of opening a really old wine that still has character.

  • Damien

    Kwispedoor, that’s good to hear. My original points was really aimed at the fact we never get to see them outside their country of origin, possibly due to our Euro-centric wine press. Oh well, just have to save for that trip to the lands “down under”!

  • keith prothero

    I prefer the word “mature” to old. And I estimate over 90% of the wine I drink is mature,especially red wine.
    Too much wine is, very sadly drunk far too young.

  • Good, thought provoking piece.

  • Kwispedoor

    Hi, Glenn. I suppose the best South African wines to age are what we call Muscadel or Muskadel (fortified sweets from Muscat grapes). I had a 1930 from KWV last year that was just gorgeous. Most producers that make Muscadel do it pretty well and most of them age with benefit for a long time. My favourites are probably KWV and Nuy. If you can find Cape Vintage Reserve (Port-style) wines from Boplaas, De Krans and Bredell’s, you won’t be disappointed – I promise! Noble Late Harvest wines from the likes of Fleur du Cap and Nederburg also mature well. White wines that age well: those from Cape Point Vineyards (esp. Isleidh and Semillon – the latter sadly not produced anymore), Chamonix (esp. their Chardonnays), Vergelegen White (now called GVB) and many more. The mentioned whites have good track records, but there are also some new wines on the scene that might well mature wonderfully for many years, notably some Chenin Blanc-based blends made more oxidatively. You’re on the right track with your ideas on the red wines. I’m not sure the new generation Rustenbergs will mature quite as epically as the old ones and I’ve had some mixed results with old bottles of De Toren Fusion V. I also feel that the latter especially makes their wines a bit too ripe (15% alcohol in the almost perfect, cool, long 2009 vintage) to have sufficient natural balance for consistent and extended ageing in most vintages. Beyerskloof Field Blend – no problem. Meerlust Rubicon – no problem (and do try their Pinot Noir as well). Kanonkop Pinotage, Paul Sauer, Cabernet Sauvignon and Black Label Pinotage – all good. Kanonkop Paul Sauer would be my pick if I had to choose just one SA red to age. I’m hoping to taste a whole range of old Kanonkop stuff on 26 November. What a track record they have! As far as the controversial grape Pinotage goes: people outside of this country hardly ever get to see the grape at its best, because they drink the good ones way too young. Even if you have to kiss a few frogs along the way the best OLD Pinotages can be hauntingly good.

  • glenn

    Thanks Kwispedoor

    Maybe you can help with another question. I am trying to find a wine or two from 1976 but am not having any luck. I’ve tried to contact kanonkop and meerlust, via email, and have had no responses. Any thoughts where I might get something that may have kept its age.

  • Kwispedoor

    Fairly good vintage, that. Some well-kept wines will still be drinkable. Try Alto (info@alto.co.za) or Distell (info@distell.co.za, for Zonnebloem, etc.) or KWV (customer@kwv.co.za). It could prove to be a fairly difficult search, so you might want to advertise what you want in some free online classifieds, like over here: http://www.wine.co.za/wineads/

  • Cliff Budgen

    I’m looking at a bottle of 1969 Zonnerbloem Cabernet (with a rebel price sticker of R1.24). Has been well kept and looks OK. Wonder what it would taste like?

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