‘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.