On Drinking a Wine That’s Older Than Me…

There are wines which pour, make a satisfactory glugging noise in the process and which caress, stimulate or assault the senses with varying degrees of complacency or excellence. These are the things we tend to drink from day-to-day, often as an accompaniment to other activities and, quite possibly, largely unremarked in their passing. There are also still a few wines which should be consistently avoided, either on the grounds of gratuitous toxicity or market-engineered blandness.

Then there are those wines which you approach on tip-toe and preferably from behind, to catch them unawares, and hopefully in a state still more fit for drinking rather than for use in hand-to-hand combat. These are the ones where you can have no idea whether they’ll come roaring out of the bottle after years or decades of confinement, looking to slaughter the innocent and drink their blood, or which will slide smoothly forth, with a casually doffed cap and a cultured ‘good evening’, in best Leslie Philips intonation. The mere opening of such requires commitment, nerve, and a brief offering to the gods of viniculture that they haven’t turned to purest paint-stripper over the years. The drinking of them requires both physical and mental preparation, and a clearing of both mind and palate in hopeful anticipation of joys to come.

Before yesterday, my finest wine drinking experience had been a birthday bottle of Chateau Talbot 1982, liberated by a close friend from the depths of Balliol College’s cellar – a wine of quite stunning complexity and a careful richness of taste that quite transcended anything I’d hitherto tried. A subsequent purchase of a half-case of the ’81 yielded a near-as-good experience – the vintage itself being a tad inferior to the ’82 and a final minor disappointment as the final bottles were kept just that little too long. But the Chateau Talbot is of impeccable provenance, widely available and a known quantity. What then of those wines which come from the outer darkness, possibly even without labels, and acquired on the nod of someone-we-hope-knows? We may be uncertain of their knowledge, or possibly even their sanity, but feel compelled nonetheless to take the plunge.

Wines of this ilk are products of individuals or small chateau, where volumes can’t justify wide distribution and where there is often insufficient planting to assure consistency – where a single vine having a good (or bad) year can influence the taste of the entire production. One such is M. Claude Moine, aka “The Mad Vintner of Vouvray”, creator of wines that range unpredictably from mere competence to inspired brilliance, often in adjacent bottles. For the last year, my wine rack has been home to a couple of dusty bottles with no foil and no label, merely the number 1947 roughly hand-painted in gold on the side. I’ve looked at them, walked away, sidled back up to them and even gotten as far as cooling them a couple of times, but each time have, quite literally, bottled out of the act of actually opening one. But, this week, I finally took the plunge and, after dinner had had time to clear from my senses, opened it, slowly carefully and in deep fear of disappointment. A tentative sniff of the cork and a huge wave of relief – no acrid tartness, but a crisp, sweet scent of a wine in its athletic prime. Pouring made it hard to even consider drinking it – the deep orange-gold colour and the viscosity with which it lay in the glass invited studied admiration, not consumption. But, on with the show and a first tentative slow sip: a rich fruity warmth, with just a touch of caramel, and a richness of fruit and flower that bloomed in the nose and mouth, peaking late and leaving a long and luxurious aftertaste of honeyed nectar. And if that makes me sound like Jilly Goulden on a bad day, so be it – I merely tell it as I find it. Nothing was said for some time, for fear that merely opening the mouth would hasten the slow passing of the experience. When speech did return, mere words seemed entirely inadequate, a simple whispered “By ‘eck” being all that was needed to convey a bond of shared understanding. I have one bottle left, so am preparing myself once more for that final commitment to experience over anticipation – further gibbering may be expected.

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