Recently, Viernes had the opportunity to visit Bouchard Père et Fils, located in the ramparts of the town of Beaune in Burgundy. They currently house the oldest Burgundy in the world—a few bottles remain of 1846 Bouchard Meursault-Charmes (photos courtesy Bouchard Père & Fils).
Have you ever heard of the condition called Nercrovinophyllia? Okay, so I made it up, but amongst my friends and I, we call it a “love for old or dead wine” in proper Latin it is vinum vetus amor. It is affection for, nay, love, of “old” wine, aka mature, aged or ancient. Aged wine has a unique and special character that cannot be replicated and is often ineffable. The flavors have evolved and changed as has the color. And if the wine is great, it has certainly appreciated in value, sometimes a hundred fold. They are link to the past and also a peek into the future.
Contrary to popular belief, wine does not go “off ” or turn into vinegar as it ages. In order to turn into vinegar, wine has to have vinegar “mother”—an Acetobacter. If a wine has this in even a miniscule quantity, the wine was faulty to begin with. For standardization’s sake, let us consider old wine anything 30 years or older. Anything that can stand the test of time this long and still taste amazing has true quality. But what do they taste like?
The flavors of wine change over time. One of the best metaphor for how wine ages in the bottle was told to me by Bernard Noblet, the cellar master at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. He describes the first years of a wine in reverse of its nutrient/growing cycle. A wine’s youth is characterized by its fruit—exuberant, lively and gregarious. After some years, the wine will add some floral, leafy or vegetal character as the wine evolves from being simply fruit. Later still, it will add the smell and taste of the vine and root. These lignified and spicy components show another phase in the wine’s life. And finally in its last stage, the wine will be reminiscent of the earth from which it came. This can hold true for both red and white wine. I would add that the greatest wines, at their peak show all of these characteristics at once; the confluence of all these things is a magnificent moment in the wine’s life and my own.
Just last month on visit to Burgundy, I had the opportunity to visit Bouchard Père et Fils, located in the ramparts of the town of Beaune. When I say “in,” I mean inside the actual ramparts of the fortressed town walls. They currently house the oldest Burgundy in the world—a few bottles remain of 1846 Bouchard Meursault-Charmes. Alas, I did not get to taste it, but while in France, I had the opportunity to taste some vinous treasures. At Georges Blanc in Vonnas, we drank a bottle of 1972 Grivot Vosne- Romanée Premier Cru Beaux Monts, which was amazingly fresh. In fact, the wine grew into itself over the course of our four-hour lunch. It still had some sweet cherry fruit along with a tea-like spice and a truly silky and beguiling texture. In Beaune at Ma Cuisine, a bottle of 1970 Geoffroy Père et Fils Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru was a great surprise. From a completely unheralded vintage, this wine looked faded in color, yet the flavors were vibrant, earthy and terrifically complex. In Paris, a lunch at Carré des Feuillants a bottle of 1966 Bouchard Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru was perhaps the best bottle of the entire trip. It started off a bit closed and still structured, but over the course of two hours, the wine expanded and became this amazingly rich, yet elegant conglomeration of red cherries, spices, violets and earth. And how could I forget my last wine in Paris? A bottle of 1921 Bouchard Aloxe-Corton, which was tired and earthy but still very good with dry-aged beef at Vantre.
Some of my greatest experiences with wine have been around old and mature bottles. From 1929 Montrachet from Doris Duke’s cellar to 1959 Salon at Les Crayères. 1979 Krug Clos du Mesnil at Les Millesimes in Gevrey-Chambertin to 1947 Château Cheval-Blanc and 1967 Château d’Yquem, both at 3660 on the Rise. In order to experience these kinds of wine, one requires the patience of a sloth or serious amount of resources. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “They don’t make them that old anymore.” To purchase these wines upon release and to hold them for 30 years and beyond is nearly unheard of, save for young and affluent wine collectors. But to find these treasures, one must either go to auction or visit the country and or region of its origin.
Old wines are not for everyone. Many cannot appreciate the earthy nuances that wine gains with age. Others prefer the structure and fruit of a younger wine. For my part, these old wines give me a glimpse at immortality. To see how these wines have lived and evolved for decades, many of them older than me, they make me feel a part of the continuum of time. They also give me hope when tasting younger wines to see how they will someday evolve and will certainly outlive me. The oldest wine to ever hit my palate is a Madeira made of Terrantez from 1795. Guess who the president of the U.S. was? It was none other than George Washington. He is long gone but there are wines from his time that still live.