If you ask the average person in the street what makes a wine great, they will normally answer with the idea that “old wine is better than new wine”. Now, this can, of course, be true. In certain wines, as the tannins open up and the palate develops in bottle, this can allow the wine to reach a higher state, with greater complexity and depth of flavour; a kind of “vini-enlightenment”, if you will. However, this does not mean that an old wine will automatically be great. There are many complexities when one is dealing with wine that influences how it ages; the vintage, the grape varietal, the treatment the wine was given by the producer and, perhaps most importantly, how the wine was stored.
I recently read an article by a preeminent wine writer who was talking about a well-known phenomenon in the wine world, whereby certain wines show well in their youth, then seem to close up for a period of ten years or so, before they open up again; Burgundian Pinot Noir being an excellent example of this kind of maturation profile. His recommendation for understanding this process better was that when you put down your case of Burgundian Premier Crus, that you open a bottle every two-three years or so, in order to get a picture of how this vintage/vineyard was shaping up and therefore allowing you to predict when the wine was going to peak.
Now, I don’t know about any of you but the idea of me having various twelve bottle crates of Premier Cru Burgundy in my handily-placed subterranean wine cellar is something that I can only imagine happening if that National Lottery jackpot comes through. So, how can someone of more modest means try to get into the exciting world of vintage wines? One option is to go to wine shops and wine bars offering the Enomatic wine machines that are all the rage right now (if you are unfamiliar with these, fear not, for they will be the subject of a future blog). However, in recent times I have discovered another option – using a wine auction website, such as: www.bidforwine.co.uk. This website allows you to browse through substantial collections of wines and spirits from all over the world and, importantly, often feature a fine selection of aged wines.
Recently I have opened two bottles that I bought through this website and I think that they perfectly sum up the trials and tribulations that one has when dealing with vintage wines. The first bottle was a 1997 Landmark Damaris Reserve Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, USA. I picked up this bottle of wine for in the region of £15 and I have since seen indications that it retails at £46/bottle (source www.wine-searcher.com). When I opened this bottle, I expected to find something quite creamy and toasty, being a 16 year old Chardonnay, but was amazed to find something that was bracingly fresh and crisp. It had a real character of apple and had a pleasantly enduring aftertaste. It was a lovely wine and did not taste its age at all; if anything I was left wondering whether I could have waited a little while longer to taste it! The second bottle was even more ambitious – a 1982 Louis Jadot Meursault, Beaune. Looking at the wine, it was a musky brown colour and the cork was extremely difficult to extricate. Upon opening I found that the wine was completely undrinkable; astringent and sharp to taste, with an unpleasantly vinegary flavour. It was clearly at least ten years past its best and as such it was best poured down the sink.
Now with these two experiences, what conclusions can I draw about my utilisation of this kind of wine website in order to taste vintage wines? The first is one on risk. If you buy a faulty wine from a wine merchant or wine bar, you should be able to return the wine with no hesitations. On the wine auction website, each lot has its own returns policy; in my experience the seller usually states that there will be no returns and that the sale is based on a “sold as seen” basis. However, you need to balance this up against the fact that prices for the wines on this website do seem to be markedly cheaper than you would buy if you were buying them direct from a merchant. I must say that I consider myself somewhat of a risk taker in life, but if I was going to look into spending large amounts of money I would want to have the ability to go back to the seller if the wine proved to be faulty.
The second conclusion that I draw is that one certainly cannot simply assume that because a wine is old that it is going to be good. There are so many factors that influence wine as it ages that it simply is not true to believe that wine the older a wine is the better. If you’re unsure about a vineyard, a grape or a vintage than it can often be the case that you’re better off drinking it young (cue screams of “infanticide” by some wine buffs…).
However, I find that these kinds of auction sites offer an interesting option for trying some vintage wines, provided that you are prepared to do the research and take an educated gamble.