Photo taken in Ascó, Spain
Artillery Row

In praise of old wines

The blessings of maturity

For some people wine appreciation is like big game hunting. It’s about ticking off the prizes: Latour, Petrus, Romanee Conti. Whereas for others it’s about chasing unicorns, looking for mythical wines so rare that they are almost impossible to obtain. I don’t have the money for either, but even if I did, I still think I would take the greatest pleasure in opening a strange old bottle and being surprised by how delicious it is. 

I’m fortunate in having friends and relatives who think wine is more for keeping than for drinking. When my grandfather died, we inherited all kinds of strange things that he’d been saving including a half bottle of 1937 Army & Navy claret.

Every so often I’ll persuade my father to open something. Highlights over the years have included an Ayala Extra Dry Champagne 1975 which tasted like a slightly sparkling old Sauternes, if you can imagine such a thing. Or an ancient bottle of Williams & Humbert Dry Sack sherry. The cork fell to pieces but the wine tasted like it had been bottled yesterday.

Even seemingly humdrum bottles can last and last

But for me the happiest hunting ground for old wines is Rioja. Even seemingly humdrum bottles can last and last. A few years ago I had a Beberana 1975 Reserva bought as part of a £50 mystery case from a house clearance. It’s not a famous wine from a great producer but I doubt many first growth Bordeauxs could have aged so gracefully. It was still vibrant with fruit and more tobacco than a cigar conference in Havana.

Rioja from the ‘70s and earlier has an uncanny ability to last. I tried a 1952 Marques de Riscal that seemed to get younger the longer it was in the glass. Apparently these wines get to a certain point where they just don’t deteriorate. Apart from a few sought-after names, you can pick up old Rioja very cheaply at auction, and merchants like the Sampler in Islington usually have some in stock. 

Oddly certain people get quite upset at lovers of very old wine. On Twitter recently a sommelier wrote “your taste sucks” to someone who expressed an enjoyment of such wines.

The French look at this peculiarly British habit as close to necrophilia. Americans, too, drink vintage port after a couple of years rather than waiting a generation as is customary. 

There’s something magical about what decades can do to a wine. Quite austere clarets become heady and exotically-spiced while sweet wines begin to taste dry. I also relish the flavours that some might find less appealing: the tang of vinegar, the cooked taste of caramel and the whiff of sherry in wines that definitely are not sherry.

Maybe my taste sucks too but sometimes I prefer a wine to be old than to be particularly good. You adjust your palate, it’s like having a conversation with an elderly relative who’s a bit deaf but with great stories to tell.

Maturing wines are unpredictable: I have a few bottles of 2006 Gigondas from Domaine du Cayron in my cellar. One tasted like old Madeira, and not in a good way, but two years later I opened another and it was wonderful, like a hearty stew thickened with chestnuts.

Just don’t judge a wine too quickly. Many times I’ve opened an old bottle thinking it utterly ruined but 20 minutes later the fruit appeared like a wrecked ship emerging from the sea one last time before going down.

I can feel the old wine itch coming on again. It’s time to finally open that Army and Navy claret. I reckon it’s moving into its prime drinking window. 

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